published Friday, January 8th, 2010

Mayor, police chief testify move to cut deputy chiefs was financial


by Kelli Gauthier

WHAT'S NEXT

The age discrimination lawsuit brought by former Chattanooga police deputy chiefs Skip Vaughn and Charles Cooke against the city will continue this morning if weather permits.

Police Chief Freeman Cooper and Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield testified Thursday that the decision to reorganize the police department in 2007, eliminating two deputy chief positions and replacing them with three assistant chiefs, was a budgetary, not a personal, one.

The testimony came despite Chief Cooper acknowledging on the witness stand that there was "friction" between himself and former deputy police chiefs Skip Vaughn and Charles Cooke.

Thursday was the second day of Hamilton County Chancery Court testimony in the age discrimination lawsuit brought by Mr. Vaughn and Mr. Cooke against the city. Chancellor Frank Brown is hearing the case.

Lee Davis, an attorney for the plaintiffs, submitted budget documents that showed the combined salaries of new assistant chiefs Mike Williams, Jeannie Snyder and Bobby Dodd cost the police department $49,583 more than the combined salaries of Mr. Vaughn and Mr. Cooke.

In response to Wednesday's testimony that the former deputy police chiefs received "outstanding" marks on previous work evaluations, Chief Cooper said "the form itself is flawed."

"We've been working to find a form that is better suited for sworn officers," he said.

He indicated that a poor evaluation might hurt an officer's chance of future employment, so supervisors typically make positive comments.

Mr. Davis suggested it was Chief Cooper's duty to report the truth in such evaluations.

"Nowhere in the record do you list any of this friction you spoke of. There is not one word of criticism against Deputy Cooke or Deputy Vaughn," Mr. Davis said.

When Chief Cooper reorganized the department, he said he was hoping the two men would take the option of becoming captains -- a demotion -- and continue working for the department.

"The guarantee was there, but they had to ask for it," Chief Cooper said.

Mr. Davis said the men were under the impression they had to apply for the demotion and that there was no guarantee the new positions would be available.

Chief Cooper also said he offered to let Mr. Vaughn retire, begin receiving retirement payments and immediately start working as a civilian officer -- an offer the former deputy chief declined.

Mr. Cooke received no such offer.

"I did not offer (Mr.) Cooke a position. He felt like I had betrayed him by advancing above him, and I did not ever see that changing," Chief Cooper said.

When Mr. Littlefield took the stand, he confirmed that, as mayor, he is over the police department and was involved in the decision to eliminate the two deputy chief positions.

When questioned by plaintiff attorney Jonathan Guthrie, the mayor said he publicly has stated his desire to see older, more experienced police officers in the department, but that the city's retirement plan encourages older officers to retire as soon as possible.

Mr. Littlefield also said he did not know the ages of Mr. Vaughn, Mr. Cooke or any of the three assistant chiefs who replaced them.

During the police department reorganization, Mr. Littlefield said that eliminating the two deputy chief positions would mean the police department could hire another 12 officers, which never happened.

At Mr. Guthrie's prompting, Mr. Littlefield also agreed that, before eliminating the two positions, there already was unused money in the police department's $43 million budget to hire additional officers.

"They could have been added without changing the budget," Mr. Guthrie said.

The trial will continue this morning, if weather permits.

about Kelli Gauthier...

Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...

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ddgala said...

I was shocked to read Chief Cooper's testimony in this case. If Reporter Pam Sohn's article is correct, Cooper should be in trouble for perjury. Shame on these folks. It must be that the end justifies the means.

They wanted younger people in these positions. They didn't eliminate them, they placed 2 other young individuals in these positions.

In regard to the performance appraisals, shame on them for trying this stunt. Live by your signature. After all, these men only needed a satisfactory rating to prevail. It is a myth that there is a need for an outstanding, although an outstanding makes Cooper look that much more incompetent. He should just come clean and admit that paying to new Assistant Deputy Chiefs was cheaper than paying these older guys. This is the truth, although one of the Captains promoted was a serious mistake, and had to be undone.

People at this level should sign an agreement of service at will. In other words, continued service is at the discretion of the Police Chief. After all, these are political appointments. You can appoint a goat to an Assistant Deputy Chief, Deputy Chief, or Chief's position. It has always been this way, and always will be. Every level of government works like this. In this case, however, it appears that if these 2 men had been younger with less pay, they would have been allowed to stay. They cannot use age like this, it is just plain unlawful.

January 10, 2010 at 1:20 a.m.
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