Nearly two dozen business and neighborhood leaders met Monday night to rally support for Columbia’s interim police chief, as City Council prepares for a tense meeting Tuesday over the search.
The group, made up of people from a broad section of the city, believes there is no reason to consider someone from the outside, because Ruben Santiago has done a good job running the Police Department for nearly a year. Among his many achievements, they say, is a reduction in violent crime.
“If you’ve got a horse that’s winning the race, why do you want to change horses?” said Kathryn Braun Fenner, a University Hill resident.
The group drafted a letter that will be presented to City Council at its 2 p.m. work session Tuesday and again at its regular meeting at 6. Both meetings are at City Hall.
Meanwhile, a storm is brewing within City Council as at least two members already have called for a do-over, even as the five finalists begin a three-day interview process Tuesday in Columbia.
Councilmen Cameron Runyan and Brian DeQuincey Newman said the list of finalists disappointed them. Runyan also has questioned a recent incident involving the chairman of the search committee who got into a heated discussion with a former mayoral candidate over the hiring process.
Runyan believes comments relayed to him from that encounter indicate the selection process was tainted.
He said he has reason to believe the city manager and search committee members went into it with the idea that Santiago would not be a finalist. If there was “a pre-selection,” Runyan said, he wants to throw out the committee’s work and start over.
“It’s not about who’s going to be police chief,” Runyan said. “It’s more about whether the process lacked integrity.”
If council decided to force city manager Teresa Wilson to scrap the interview process, Runyan said he did not know how the city would deal with the five men already selected. A public forum with those candidates is scheduled for Wednesday night.
“While that may be unfortunate for those five candidates, at the end of the day the ones who created that situation need to take responsibility for it,” Runyan said.
The ultimate hiring decision rests with Wilson, who launched a search for a new chief in November. She assembled a five-member search committee to help narrow the applicant pool to five from 49. The finalists’ names and short biographies were released Feb. 11.
The candidates come from South Carolina, Colorado, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. All have experience as police chiefs and department heads, but the public criticism has been rampant.
Santiago made a list of 12 finalists but was eliminated by the committee as it winnowed the pool to five. Wilson told The State newspaper that his qualifications did not allow him to move forward. Santiago will return to his old job as deputy chief once a new chief is in place, she said.
But Santiago’s supporters said he has proven himself during the past 12 months.
“If he’s not fit to be chief, why has he been appointed interim chief two times?” said David Kunz, who organized Monday night’s meeting.
That meeting, at a Five Points bar, drew a racially and ethnically diverse group. It included neighborhood leaders and business owners.
The letter drafted by the group cites reasons they support Santiago, including:
• Reduced violent and property crime rates citywide
• A reported $1.2 million obtained through drug-related arrests
• The acquisition of a military surplus armored vehicle
• New programs such as one for reserve officers and another for false alarm reduction
While the group spent most of Monday night’s hour-long meeting making their case for Santiago, they did spend time picking apart the resumes of the finalists. Some are too old, they said. One comes from a much smaller department. One has no municipal police department experience. One resigned from his previous job amid controversy, they said.
“I refuse to believe that is the nation’s best list, or the best list Columbia could come up with, as we scoured the nation for candidates,” Kunz said.
Wilson has said she is pleased with the list of finalists and believes the city will find a qualified, long-term chief among them.
Efforts to reach Wilson on Monday about the community group and Tuesday’s council meetings were unsuccessful.
Robert Bolchoz, the search committee chairman, also could not be reached for comment Monday. He previously has said he did not discuss specific candidates with anyone outside the search committee.
The next chief will be the eighth person to lead the department in the past seven years. He will supervise 460 employees, including 385 officers, and will earn between $89,246 and $115,869 annually.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.