The Smithville board of aldermen, with four voting in the affirmative, upheld the city discipline board's decision last month to terminate Police Chief Richard Jennings for dereliction of duties/negligence following a hearing Monday night at city hall.
Aldermen W.J. (Dub) White, Steve White, Shawn Jacobs, and Aaron Meeks all voted for termination. Alderman Cecil Burger, saying he lacked enough information, did not vote.
At the beginning of the hearing, Jennings' attorney Kerry Knox of Murfreesboro, asked that Meeks recuse himself from voting since, as police commissioner, he is the one who initiated the suspension of Chief Jennings and is a member of the three man discipline board who voted to terminate Jennings. " I think it is inappropriate for Mr. Meeks to be a voting member on this decision. I think we all know Mr. Meeks was the police commissioner who affected this termination. I don't think it gives any appearance of impartiality by this board for Mr. Meeks to be a voting member on this decision. We know where he stands and it's not fair for him to stand as both accuser and judge in this case. So for that reason I would ask that Mr. Meeks recuse in this vote."
Meeks did not recuse himself from voting.
Knox wanted to question Meeks, about the allegations raised against Jennings, but Mayor Taft Hendrixson and City Attorney Vester Parsley would not permit it, saying this was not a court of law. Knox protested saying that the board would be denying his client due process by not being able to question his accuser. "I suggest that's all we can do in this case (question Meeks) because we don't know what these allegations mean, where they come from, and what the basis is for them. So without any further explanation from Mr. Meeks about what this means and how we're supposed to respond, I don't know how to do that without having Mr. Meeks explain to this board what these allegations mean and where they come from. I'm prepared to let Chief Jennings speak on these issues but I think it would be appropriate for a response from Mr. Meeks to tell us how these allegations are substantiated because the employees of the city of Smithville can only be terminated for cause. That means you have to give us a good reason why this termination is justified. We don't have to explain to you why it's unjustified."
Knox added "It is a denial of due process. We can't respond to allegations if we don't know what they are or where they come from. We'll do our best to respond but I'm putting you on notice that we consider this a denial of due process when you're looking at the subjectivity contained in this document and somehow that is supposed to rise to the level of cause."
Knox then reviewed each of the eleven allegations against Jennings and allowed him to give an answer to them. Afterwards, Knox again renewed his objection to Meeks voting on this matter and the mayor and city attorney's refusal to allow him to question Meeks. "I think it's unfortunate and candidly unconstitutional that we're forced to stand up here and tear down a paper tiger that you created without hearing from the accuser on the justification for this sundry list of reasons that Chief Jennings was terminated so for that reason I would encourage the board, if they're not going to let me question him, for the board to question him and again, I renew my objection to him (Meeks) participating in this decision because if we're going to give at least the outward appearance that this board is impartial and is going to consider these decisions on it's own it can't do so with the participation of Mr. Meeks."
Alderman Jacobs bristled at Knox's remarks. " I'd like to say I'm personally offended by the accusation that this board does not know what's going on absent Mr. Meeks. Most of these gentlemen have been on the board for several years. I'm a newbie. I think it is ludicrous to say that the board is not aware of any of these allegations beside Mr. Meeks. I think every person on this board has gone to Mr. Jennings and begged him to make certain changes in the department in regard to drug interdiction and crime investigation which has virtually been zero for sometime in this community. I personally like Mr. Jennings very much and I hate it has come to this. I can assure you that this is about policy. It is not about politics and it is most certainly not about personality because I have a great deal of affection for Mr. Jennings. I hate the situation has come to this. I have prayed and I have prayed and I have prayed that this board will make the right decision, probably to the neglect of other things I should have prayed about. This is not a rush to judgment. This is something that some members of this board have been working on for many years before the newest members have been selected. I am very much troubled and offended that anyone would accuse this board of doing anything that is less than altruistic and certainly not above board. This is a very hard job to make a decision like this. I don't want to take a vote on this either way. If it were up to me we wouldn't be voting either way but it's come to this and I hate it. I thoroughly reject some of the comments about the board that have been made tonight and about Mr. Meeks in particular."
Alderman Steve White added " I would also like to echo a lot of what Mr. Jacobs has said. I do hate that it has come to this situation and gone this far."
Aldermen Cecil Burger, who is also former city employee and mayor, briefly mentioned his long time association with Jennings." Richard and I have worked together a long time and I hope we're friends. When I was mayor I had to call him in the office different times to discuss things. We've worked together and don't start trying to tell me how he operates or what he does or when he does it. We've been together long enough that we know each other and how we operate."
Alderman W.J. (Dub) White said he too has known Jennings for many years. "I've known Richard since back in the 60's and I have worked with him at the city since the 90's. I like Richard as a person. I hate it has come to this."
Prior to the hearing, three city residents spoke in support of Jennings
Faye Fuqua said Jennings has been an effective and professional chief. "He has cultivated a staff of professional officers. He has been fair and hard working and an even handed chief. We question whether this is a justified dismissal or maybe a personal conflict between the police commissioner, Mr. Meeks and Chief Jennings. To date there has been no evidence to support such a dismissal. If there is such evidence, why has it not been presented? Tonight we are asking you, our board of aldermen to do the right thing and to right this terrible wrong. There is a petition that is being circulated (that reads) ‘Police Chief Richard Jennings has served Smithville with honor and distinction since 1986. He is respected by other officers. He enforces the law without fear or favor, never succumbing to petty political pressures. Chief Jennings has earned the overwhelming support of our community'. Many people have responded to this petition and all will have an opportunity to give him their support on this written petition."
Lloyd Black also defended Jennings, saying this was just a political move." I really think this is just old politics being renewed. It's not a good thing. We have a good chief. We have a good police department. Things are going great. I sleep well at night and I want to continue to sleep well at night. I just think this is a mistake. You need to think it over and look at it really hard because we don't want to do the wrong thing and get the wrong person in here. We've been there. I think we'd better stick with what we've got.'
Fay Cantrell added "I think you all are doing Richard Jennings bad, and I mean bad."
With the vote going against Jennings, his only recourse now may be in a court of law. Knox says he and Jennings have not yet made a decision on their next course of action.
On Thursday, November 12th Jennings was suspended without pay pending termination and Lieutenant Steven Leffew was named "Officer in Charge" of the department until the issue with the chief position is settled.
Jennings says he was called to the mayor's office at city hall that afternoon where he was given the news. Those present were Mayor Taft Hendrixson, Police Commissioner Aaron Meeks, and Secretary-Treasurer Hunter Hendrixson.
Meeks signed the notice of suspension with the verbal concurrence of the mayor. Hunter Hendrixson was not involved in the decision. The reasons for the suspension were read to Jennings and he was given a written copy.
The notice of suspension read as follows "You (Jennings) are being suspended for the following reason- dereliction of duties/negligence.
1. In the past two years, as Police Chief, you have not developed a comprehensive plan to combat crime problems in the City of Smithville, as evidenced by your admission to the board at the workshop of September 14th, 2009. You have not reached out to other agencies for help in combating these problems.
2. You were given two additional officers by the previous board with your promise that you then would be able to do drug investigations. To date, this has not happened.
3. At the workshop on September 14th, 2009, you did not know how many officers you had employed in the department, as evidenced by the CD of the meeting.
4. You have 4 or 5 officers-including yourself and the investigator-on duty on the day shift. You could have used some of these officers to work drug operations.
5. Your claim that the police department's budget has been cut is not substantiated by the 2008-09 city budget. In fact, there was an increase in the police department's budget over the previous year's budget. Also, your claim that all of your overtime has been cut is not true. You are still having overtime in your department.
6. There has been little progress made toward having a better-trained Police Force in specialized areas.
7. Community relations between your office and the public have deteriorated over the last two years.
8. You have not been a "working chief" out patrolling, issuing traffic tickets, answering calls for service, and making arrests.
9. You have authorized the use of a police vehicle for the transportation of civilians out of the area of authority of the Smithville Police Department.
10. It is the responsibility of all department heads to be available for call out at all times. You advised that you turn off your city cell phone when you leave for the day.
11. You have demonstrated lack of adequate supervision of officers.
On Tuesday, November 17th, the City of Smithville's discipline board met briefly at city hall and by a vote of 2 to 1, dismissed Chief Jennings.
Members of the board, Alderman and Police Commissioner Aaron Meeks and Mayor Taft Hendrixson both voted in concurrence with the suspension and termination. Secretary-Treasurer Hunter Hendrixson voted against.
After the vote, Jennings requested a hearing before the entire board of aldermen at the December 7th city council meeting to appeal the termination.
The decision Monday night by the aldermen was final. Jennings is terminated.
Meanwhile, in other business, the aldermen approved the promotion of Patrolman Randy King to Sergeant and Patrolman Travis Bryant to Corporal.
Mayor Hendrixson added that January 26th is the tentative bid opening for water plant project.