COLUMBIA, SC — The interviews of finalists for the Columbia police chief job are moving forward despite accusations from one City Council member that the process was tainted.
Councilman Cameron Runyan revealed an email Tuesday afternoon from the head of the five-person police chief search committee that called the Columbia Police Department dysfunctional and said no current or former officers should be the chief.
Robert Bolchoz wrote the email in August and sent it to Mayor Steve Benjamin and Robert Stewart, a former SLED director who was chairman of the mayors bond reform committee. Bolchoz, a Columbia lawyer who also was a member of the bond reform committee, later was named chairman of the search committee for the chief.
But Bolchoz and City Manager Teresa Wilson, who appointed him chairman of the search committee, defended their work Tuesday during a two-hour discussion of the search during a Council meeting. They described in-depth how the candidates were screened and how the search committee members voted to narrow the finalists to five.
After the meeting, Wilson said she was aware of Bolchozs email before he was named to the search committee in November. But she still thought he would be fair.
You have your personal opinions, and you have professional capacities in which you work, she said.
Council also allowed the public to speak, and a handful of people urged the city to reconsider interim chief Ruben Santiago for the job. They said he has proven himself since he was appointed interim last April.
Wilson also said she recognized the passion in the community over the police chiefs position and respected the publics concern over the selection.
Citizens feel strongly about public safety, she said. So do I. This is the most important decision Ill probably make.
She also acknowledged the vocal community support for interim chief Ruben Santiago.
I would ask the public to recognize I often have a lens that is greater than anyone elses, Wilson said.
Bolchoz told Council members the committee received about 50 applications and quickly cut the list to 25. From there, 12 people were selected for interviews, including Santiago. Those interviews were conducted by video and lasted 30 to 45 minutes.
After those interviews, the five members of the search committee each got to cast votes for their five favorite candidates. Of the five finalists, four were on each members ballot. The fifth was on four ballots, Bolchoz said.
There would be no way for a person to advance without receiving the necessary votes or support of the entire committee, Bolchoz said.
Bolchoz took the most heat, especially from Runyan. The two ran against each other in 2012 for an at-large seat on Council that Runyan now holds.
But Councilmen Brian DeQuincey Newman and Sam Davis also said they were concerned about the process and wanted an explanation of how the five finalists were picked.
Runyan also grilled Bolchoz over a Feb. 9 incident at a Devine Street restaurant where Bolchoz and a former mayoral candidate got into a heated exchange over the search. Rumors have been flying around town about what was said during that encounter, and Bolchoz insisted he did nothing wrong.
I did not tell him I had the fix in with Teresa, Bolchoz said. I did not tell him the two of us had managed to commandeer this process. I did not tell him this process was a sham.
Bolchoz also insisted there was no way he could single-handedly keep Santiago from being a finalist.
There was just no way one person could keep somebody from getting on that list or put somebody on that list as a matter of fact, he said.
But Runyan pointed toward Bolchozs email as evidence that he was prejudiced against internal candidates.
The Aug. 8 email, in part, said, The chiefs position should not be open to any current or former member of the Columbia Police Department. (Chief Santiago has done an admirable job of trying to right the ship at the CPD under very difficult circumstances. There are many excellent officers in the Department, truly dedicated to public service and safety, but they are hamstrung by the turmoil and allegations of serious misdeeds at the very top. The current organization is dysfunctional to a point that requires radical change at the highest level.)
The email also said the city should seriously look at the legality and practicality of having Sheriff Leon Lott run the department. That is something Runyan has discussed, too.
When Runyan brought up the email, Bolchoz interrupted him, saying he knew what was coming. After Runyan read a portion of the email, Bolchoz said, Yes, those are my words youre looking at.
But Bolchoz said he had not entered the search with any set ideas about who should be a candidate and who should not.
There was no pre-determined rule that we were going to kick those that were in the department out, Bolchoz said.
As Runyan repeatedly asked Bolchoz questions, Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine intervened.
He has answered those questions, she said. It may not be the answer you want, but he has answered it several times.
One finalist withdraws
One of the five finalists for the Columbia police chiefs job has withdrawn from the search.
Charles Rapp, executive director of the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions, sent an email to city officials Monday evening saying he had a medical emergency and was not able to travel to Columbia for the three-day interview process.
If you go: Public forum
What: A public forum for the four 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 had to have been submitted by Monday
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.