COLUMBIA GOVERNMENT

Columbia council feuding over police chief finalists as interviews begin with five candidates

nophillips@thestate.comFebruary 16, 2014 

— City Council is gearing up for another fiery debate Tuesday over the hiring of Columbia’s next police chief.

It’s the same day the five finalists begin their extensive, three-day interview process.

At least two council members are saying the search should be scrapped after the list of five finalists disappointed them. They also question a recent incident in which the chairman of the search committee apparently got into a heated public argument with a former mayoral candidate over the hiring process.

“There’s an air of concern over the whole process for those two reasons,” said Councilman Cameron Runyan.

Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman said, “I’m extremely concerned over who the next police chief is, and I’m not overly impressed with who is on the list.”

City Manager Teresa Wilson released the finalists’ names Tuesday after a pool of 49 applicants was narrowed by the search committee, whose members were appointed by her. The five finalists for a chief have experience leading law enforcement agencies in South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and in the Air Force.

During last week’s snow break, city residents and council members spent time searching for information about the candidates. Almost immediately, complaints began.

One thing that drew criticism was a name missing from the list – interim chief Ruben Santiago, who has been running the police department since March. Santiago has a vocal support group who want him to become the permanent chief. He also has a corruption allegation from a former officer hanging over his head that the State Law Enforcement Division has yet to sort out. And it is clear that he and Wilson have fallen out.

Wilson had promised an open search with plenty of public input as she tries to bring stability to the department of 460 employees, including 385 officers. The next chief, who will earn between $89,246 and $115,869, will be the eighth in seven years.

The candidates’ three-day assessment is jam-packed with interviews and meetings. Dozens of people will be involved, including city council members, neighborhood and business leaders and police officers as well as Wilson and assistant city manager Allison Baker, who would be the new chief’s boss at City Hall. Residents gets their chance to meet the candidates Wednesday night during a forum at City Hall.

At least three city council members said it was unfair to start criticizing the candidates before they come to town for their interviews. The police chief hire is Wilson’s decision and council needs to back off, they said.

“It’s very important we don’t revert back to the ways of previous councils where we get involved in the administrative operations of city government,” Councilwoman Leona Plaugh, a former city manager herself, said of council members.

Councilman Moe Baddourah said, “I’m going to let the process take its course. Teresa picked the committee, and it’s her responsibility.”

Tameika Isaac Devine said the finalists were chosen by law enforcement professionals who know what to look for in a chief.

“Personally, I think we’ve got really good candidates,” Devine said. “I’m looking forward to meeting them.”

Under the city’s council-manager form of government, Wilson has the sole hiring authority for the chief’s position. Council only hires the city attorney, the city manager and city judges.

Wilson was unavailable Friday to talk about the concerns of some council members. But she has said she is pleased with the broad range of experience the finalists have. She also said the five had demonstrated a commitment to Columbia and an understanding of the dynamics of serving in Columbia.

Runyan is the most vocal critic of the final candidates and the selection process.

He said he did research on the candidates and has questions about their qualifications, especially about Bryan Norwood, a former chief of the Richmond, Va., Police Department who resigned amid controversy in March 2013. Norwood was criticized for his department’s supervision of a sentence of community service performed by singer Chris Brown, who was being punished for an assault charge.

Runyan questioned why Norwood would be brought to Columbia for an interview.

“For Ruben to not make the final five when another guy was run out of his past job, that doesn’t pass muster,” Runyan said.

Runyan also wondered why Tony Fisher, who is a retired director of the Spartanburg Public Safety Department, is on the list if Wilson has said she is looking for a chief who will lead the department for the long haul.

“If you want a long-term chief to bring stability, why on Earth do you have a retiree on the list of finalists?” he said.

But Devine said those are exactly the questions that can be asked when the candidates arrive.

“Part of the process is when they come to town we get to ask the tough questions,” she said.

Another cloud hanging over the finalists is an incident on Feb. 6 involving Robert Bolchoz, a lawyer who leads the search committee, and Larry Sypolt, a former mayoral candidate.

Details about the incident vary, but the two got into a disagreement while at a Columbia restaurant over whether Santiago should be a finalist.

Sypolt said he left the conversation with the understanding that the committee had a preferred candidate and that Santiago would not make the cut.

Bolchoz denies saying anything about individual candidates.

The incident led Runyan and other council members to demand an explanation from Wilson. She has not provided one, Runyan said.

But Devine said she expected the search committee to meet Tuesday with council.

Mayor Steve Benjamin could not be reached for comment, but Runyan said the mayor shares his concerns. Efforts to reach Councilman Sam Davis likewise were unsuccessful.

The bottom line, Runyan said, is the entire process needs to be scrapped and restarted. It’s only fair to the city and to the candidates themselves, he said.

“Would you really want to accept a job where there are unresolved questions about the integrity of the process hanging over it?” he said. “It’s not fair to them. It’s sloppy to do anything otherwise.”

The five candidates

Tony Fisher

Fisher retired in 2013 as director of Spartanburg’s public safety department, where he oversaw the police and fire departments. Also has served as chief of Takoma Park, Md., police department and as an officer in the Montgomery County Police Department in Rockville, Md. Has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland.

William Holbrook

Holbrook is chief of the Huntington, W.Va., police department, which has 126 employees, including 111 officers, and a $12 million budget. He also has worked as an officer in the Charlotte Police Department. Graduated from the FBI Academy. Has a master’s degree from Pfeiffer University.

Bryan Norwood

Norwood is a former chief of the Richmond Police Department in Virginia. The department has 760 officers and a $79 million budget. He also has served as a police chief in Bridgeport, Conn., and in New Haven, Conn. Also served as a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency special agent in New York City. Has a bachelor’s degree from Hampton University in Virginia.

Charles Rapp

Rapp is executive director of the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Division, a state agency that provides regulatory oversight and training to corrections and police agencies. Served in several positions with the Baltimore County Police Department, including as captain of the police training academy, criminal investigations division and hostage negotiation team. Has a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.

Gregory Reese

Reese is chief of security forces for the Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, where he is responsible for 2,000 officers. He is a 23-year Air Force veteran with experience as chief of four military police departments. Has a master’s degree from the University of South Carolina.

About the search committee

City Manager Teresa Wilson formed a five-person search committee to serve as consultants for hiring a new police chief. They are:

Robert Bolchoz, chairman. A lawyer and a former prosecutor in the S.C. attorney general’s office and in Charleston

Patty Patterson, a former Sumter Police Department chief

Brian Lamkin, a former FBI special agent in charge

Jon Ozmint, a former S.C. Department of Corrections director

Anson Shells, a former Florence Police Department chief and current community relations commander in the department

If you go: Council meeting

What: A City Council discussion of the search

When: 2 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Council chambers at City Hall, 1737 Main St.

If you go: Public forum

What: A public forum for the five police chief candidates

When: 6-8:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Council chambers at City Hall, 1737 Main St.

To participate: Emailed questions for the candidates may be submitted through today to columbiahr@columbiasc.net.

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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