A Columbia city councilman’s proposal Monday to revisit the idea of turning the city’s troubled police department over to the sheriff appears to be dying on the vine.
A poll of the other six council members found that all but one rejected outright Councilman Cameron Runyan’s suggestion.
Runyan’s proposal, announced during a news conference, comes as city manager Teresa Wilson is days away from hiring the city’s eighth police chief since 2007.
Of the other council members, Mayor Steve Benjamin is the only one to say he is “open to any proposal” to improve public safety. Benjamin, who issued a statement while out of the country, did not directly endorse Runyan’s plan to suspend the selection of a new chief and re-open talks with Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.
Wilson said late Monday that she has narrowed her search to three finalists and has no plans to stop the selection, because City Council has not directed her to do so. She was out of state to do more background checking of one of the finalists.
Wilson said she will announce her choice early next week.
Meanwhile, leaders of two prominent business groups threw their support behind the plan, but several other community leaders criticized Runyan’s timing.
“We don’t need to revisit this,” said Christie Savage, president of the Eau Claire Community Council, who Monday fired off an opposition letter to council members.
Runyan would need the votes of three more council members for the plan to be approved. But five did not mince words Monday as they responded to his proposal.
“Any way, shape or form – no,” said Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine.
“I don’t support it at all,” Councilman Sam Davis, the longest-serving member, said.
“I am vote No. 1 to continue the process of hiring a police chief,” Councilman Moe Baddourah said.
“It makes it very difficult for candidates ... to make a decision to come to the city,” Councilwoman Leona Plaugh said of the finalists for the chief’s post.
Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman could not be reached Monday. But he has said he opposes any merger.
Runyan plans to bring up the idea at council’s meeting next week. But he stopped short of saying he will call for a vote.
Fifth time a charm?
Runyan said he will push ahead with Lott regardless of whether Wilson selects a chief. A combined city/county law enforcement agency of more than 1,000 officers would create one of the state’s largest police forces.
Runyan proposes that Lott assume leadership under a contract for a three-year pilot program, giving Lott full authority to hire and fire in the department as he has over deputies because he is an elected official.
This is the fifth time the city has approached Lott about combining departments in the 18 years he has been sheriff, Lott said.
“The answer is going to be the same it always has been,” he said at an afternoon news conference. “I have to be totally in control. Anything beyond that is a waste of everyone’s time.”
The last time council took up the issue in September 2010, a fragile majority that favored merger fell apart when one councilman, Daniel Rickenmann, changed his mind.
The city’s residents vote for sheriff, and Lott said he works for them, too. “I’m not going to turn it down and turn my back on them,” he said.
Runyan, a first-term councilman elected citywide, was undeterred by pushback from fellow council members.
“Whether it’s one vote or four, it doesn’t change whether something is right or wrong,” he said in an interview.
“The issues with CPD have become more and more apparent,” Runyan said. “The SLED report changed things. We have to have this discussion.”
Key questions unanswered
During negotiations prior to the 2010 vote, Lott and city officials came up with a tentative agreement, which was never released to the public, Lott said. That agreement will serve as the starting point for the latest discussion to merge the two departments, Lott and Runyan said.
Lott would not elaborate on details such as which commanders he would retain, how much the city would pay for his services and where the headquarters would be located.
Lott receives funding for his department from Richland County Council. Council chairman Norman Jackson said he had no concerns about a merger except what might happen if the city changes its mind.
“City Council would know best what type of leadership they need,” Jackson said. “They have the right to explore whatever possible idea they can to make the city of Columbia better.”
Runyan called the latest scandal within the police department’s leadership one more reason Lott should be in charge.
A just-completed investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division and the FBI into allegations of misconduct found insufficient grounds for any charges.
But the prosecutor assigned to review the findings said that interim chief Ruben Santiago had failed to be fully forthcoming about a profanity-laced recorded conversation that involved former chief Randy Scott’s professional and personal problems.
The probe focused on Santiago and fired Capt. Dave Navarro, who accused Santiago of a scheme to frame an assistant city manager so that Scott could move into that manager’s City Hall job while Santiago and Navarro would advance within the department. Scott later disappeared from public view for three weeks before emerging last April to resign, citing job stress.
Santiago, who has been interim chief for nearly a year, was eliminated last month as a candidate for the chief’s job by a citizen search committee that Wilson appointed.
Lott was boss of now-troubled officers
Scott, Santiago and Navarro all were schooled in the Richland County Sheriff’s Department under Lott before they accepted jobs with the police department. Scott had been Lott’s chief deputy and returned to the Sheriff’s Department after his resignation.
Asked Monday if he had second thoughts because those three were promoted by Lott, Runyan said, “I have full confidence in the sheriff’s ability to run the Columbia Police Department. I don’t think we’ve seen scandals coming out of the Sheriff’s Department.”
Lott also defended the three officers’ performances when they worked for him.
“We didn’t have any scandals at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department,” Lott said. “Once they left the Sheriff’s Department, these scandals came about.”
Lott was asked how he would handle Scott’s involvement with city police officers. “Randy Scott is a deputy with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department,” Lott said. “He doesn’t have a supervisory position.”
Runyan repeated that he’s dissatisfied with the way Wilson has handled the search for a chief. Mostly, Runyan said, he’s troubled by Wilson naming a search committee chairman who Runyan said is biased.
Chairman Robert Bolchoz wrote an email in August, before Wilson chose the search panel, saying he opposed selecting anyone from the department’s ranks. Bolchoz on Monday declined comment.
Runyan said one difference about the latest proposal is that the sheriff has agreed to work publicly for a trial merger. The two plan to make joint public appearances to answer questions, Runyan said. A schedule has not been set.
Lott said he would attend community forums, but he is not going to campaign for a merger.
Runyan said he proposed opening talks with Lott earlier this year to the city budget and finance committee, which Runyan chairs.
“I couldn’t get it out of committee.”
Runyan a rogue?
Several council members questioned Runyan’s timing in making his suggestion as Wilson is about to finish a months-long search.
“It seems like you have a rogue council member,” Devine said of Runyan, with whom she has been at odds publicly on other issues as well.
Plaugh crystallized what her colleagues said Monday. “I think it’s a very inopportune time to be holding a news conference when the city manager is narrowing the field.”
The Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce threw its backing to Runyan’s proposal.
“We firmly believe Sheriff Lott, based on his past performance, has the credibility and proven results to bring about positive change in the Columbia Police Department, which will benefit our entire community,” the chamber said in a statement released Monday afternoon.
“We encourage our City Council members to embrace this plan,” the chamber said in also announcing a Thursday news conference.
The Five Points Association also supports Runyan’s plan, said association president Tim Smith, who attended the councilman’s news conference.
Staff writer Dawn Hinshaw contributed to this article. Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664. Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.