The mayor and the police chief

It has been more than six weeks now since Police Chief Perry and two of his assistants were suspended from service by or with the approval of Mayor Carvalho. Questions about this action, its circumstances and justification, have raised a maelstrom of interest on our island. The suspensions were made with considerable secrecy which has only enhanced the public curiosity. Perhaps the leading inquiry about the occurrences has been the question as to the authority of the mayor to act as he did.

The roots of the process problems involved lie in the County Charter. The structure of our county government created by the Charter is somewhat unusual. The Charter gives the mayor direct supervision over four major departments of the executive branch — finance, public works, parks and recreation and county attorney— where he may hire and terminate the department head. But in three other major departments — fire, police and planning — a commission has the authority to hire or terminate the department head.

The Charter is not a model of clarity as to the scope of the mayor’s powers. While it recites that the mayor is the county chief executive officer, and it allows his termination of department heads who report to him, it does not expressly provide for disciplinary authority for him of the suspension nature here involved .

 It is understood that the county attorney has advised the mayor that he has the authority to act as he did on the suspensions. But the county attorney serves at the pleasure of the mayor, and some observers believe that his loyalty to the mayor exceeds his responsibility to the law.

Section 6.04 of the Charter provides “Department heads may … suspend, discharge or discipline subordinate employees as may be necessary for the proper conduct of the departments …” No comparable provision is set forth for the mayor or the commissions.

The principle that Section 6.04 seems to illuminate is that the power to discipline only relates to those over whom hire and fire power exists.

This logic would suggest that power of the mayor and the  commissions would be limited to the discipline of those who report to them. In the case of the mayor that would include only the department heads in the executive branch.

It may be arguable that the mayor is authorized to discipline the police chief, but it is very difficult to conclude that his authority extends over police department employees who are subordinate to the chief.

Although the matter is not free from doubt, in my view, the better interpretation is that the mayor does not have suspension or other disciplinary power over the police chief or his assistants.

The justification for the actions taken on or about the first of February to suspend the chief and two other police officers was shrouded in much secrecy. On Feb. 2, the mayor released a statement which said that the suspensions were the result of an employee-generated complaint to the police commission; that the complaint would be investigated and adjudicated; and that to assure proper investigation, the suspensions were made.

The release further notes that the commission has rules relating to complaints, but it appears that such rules are directed to complaints from the public as the police chief is responsible for inter-department matters. The release goes on to state that the mayor has the authority to make the suspensions pursuant to Charter Section 7.05. Evidently the suspensions have ended.

But no official statement explains whether all of the suspensions were made by the mayor, what the charges were for the suspensions made and why they are required, whether the mayor or the commission will be conducting the investigations and make any adjudication as to the matters in question, and the status of such investigations. While some privacy is appropriate, as is often the case the cover-up is of far greater concern than the actions.

The mayor’s  Feb. 2 statement advised that investigations and procedures were being conducted in secrecy because “reputations are at stake.” While reputations are indeed involved, it may well be open to question whether reputations suffer more from rumors based on false information than providing responsive facts.

An unknown party apparently requested the Charter Review Commission to hold an executive session to consider amendments to Charter Sections 7.05 and 11.04 to clarify their application to suspensions. The matter was on the agenda for the commission’s Feb. 27 meeting, but the meeting was canceled. No explanation was given as to the need for the executive session.

It is dubious whether this commission, appointed by the mayor and historically protective of his interests, would be the appropriate forum to consider the issues involved.

If the mayor intended his actions as a probe to get public reaction to an expansion of mayoral power, he would be disappointed. With one exception, all the citizens I spoke to believed that the mayor’s actions were in excess of his proper powers.

The Police Commission was created in furtherance of state law to separate the operations of the police department from county political control.

 Looking beyond the perhaps muddled language of the charter, it seems basically inconsistent with this policy to allow the mayor to overreach the commission and to restructure police department operations by suspending three of its leaders and to conduct the investigation as to the charges alleged for the suspensions.

We cannot now know whether the conduct of the police officers may have justified the suspensions, but it seems evident that the process would have been better served if any required action had been taken by the commission.

• Walter Lewis is a resident of Princeville and pens a biweekly column for The Garden Island.

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