Police have new chief now but await next decision

Police have new chief now but await next decision

April 1st, 2010 by Cliff Hightower and Todd South in News

Mayor Ron Littlefield has appointed an interim police chief, who may serve up to 90 days.

But a provision in the City Charter has the City Council chairman saying the mayor needs council approval for the appointment, which should be done by next Tuesday.

"He would need approval of the council," Chairman Jack Benson said Wednesday. "I don't see any problems with giving it to him."

Staff File Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press Chattanooga Police Chief Freeman Cooper speaks to the City Council as Mayor Ron Littlefield, near left, listens.

A review of the city' charter and code Wednesday by the Times Free Press shows that a majority of City Council members must approve new fire and police chiefs appointed by the mayor.

On Tuesday, Mayor Ron Littlefield appointed Deputy Police Chief Mark Rawlston to fill the position left by retiring police Chief Freeman Cooper after the council rejected the mayor's contract proposal to keep Chief Cooper on for three more years.

The City Code states that temporary or interim department heads can serve only up to 90 days, then the interim appointee must be put back into his or her former position.

Mr. Benson said Wednesday that the charter supersedes the code, so that means the mayor must bring his interim appointment before the council.

Mr. Littlefield disagreed.

"I can't recall a council before approving an interim," he said.

There is precedent for his appointment of Chief Rawlston, he said. In November 1995, police Chief Ralph Cothran died and then-Safety Administrator Ervin Dinsmore, who headed both the fire and police departments, filled in. Former Mayor Jon Kinsey hired former police Chief Jimmie Dotson in October 1997, according to newspaper reports.

City Attorney Mike McMahan said Wednesday that he believes the code and charter mean the mayor has until 90 days before a replacement is approved by the council, whether interim or permanent. He acknowledged that somehow the mayor and council must get to an approval process.

"They've got to get themselves into that posture," he said.

Within that 90 days, Mr. Littlefield said, he plans to talk to Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond about the possibility of the sheriff taking over the helm of the city police department.

"We'll see," he said. "That's why we have 90 days."

police response

Police leaders said Wednesday they're happy to have Chief Rawlston in place but questions remain as to what city government will do with the top police position.

On Tuesday, the City Council voted 6-2 against offering a contract to Chief Cooper. Mr. Littlefield had proposed hiring the chief at his $116,822 salary after Chief Cooper retired Wednesday. Under the contract, the chief also would have collected his retirement benefit and pension pay.

"I was sorry that it unfolded the way that it did," Chief Rawlston said. "And I hate that the debate deteriorated into what it did over the past week."

Assistant Chief Mike Williams said he's worked with Chief Rawlston closely for the last three years and decades ago as a patrolman and trusts his leadership.

Some calm in place of the recent turmoil will help the department, he said.

"It was just a huge relief out here today to know how things are going to go and be able to get back to work," he said.

Chief Cooper did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.

Chief Rawlston joined the department at the same time as Chief Cooper and is eligible for the same type of Deferred Retirement Option Plan retirement benefit that Chief Cooper took as part of his retirement at 28 years.

But Chief Rawlston said he doesn't have any plans to retire until at least his 30-year anniversary, which is two years away.

Stepping into the chief's position surprised him, he said.

"I have to tell you, I achieved my goal with the Chattanooga Police Department when I got hired," he said. "After being a patrolman, I thought maybe one day, if I really work hard, I can be lieutenant."

Senior leaders at the Chattanooga Police Department:

Deputy Chief Mark Rawlston

Hired March 26, 1982

Can retire now and receive full DROP benefit and pension

Assistant Chief Stan Moffett

Hired Oct. 1, 1974

Can retire now with full DROP benefit and pension

Assistant Chief Mike Williams

Hired Nov. 12, 1982

Can retire now, must wait until November to receive full DROP benefit

Assistant Chief Bobby Dodd

Hired June 6, 1986

Eligible for retirement in June 2011, must wait until 2014 for full DROP benefit

Any talk of him taking over as permanent chief is speculation but he said that, if offered the job, he would take it.

Sgt. Toby Hewitt, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 22, said Chief Rawlston knows the job and can handle the responsibilities as interim chief.

"Honestly, I don't expect any hiccups or any major changes initially," Sgt. Hewitt said.

The lodge has not met since discussion of Chief Cooper's retirement went public, but Sgt. Hewitt said that in conversations with officers most would like to see the permanent chief come from the department and not another agency, including the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.

Sheriff Hammond said he thinks the goal of getting him to assume control of the city police department is in the mayor's hands and "when he wants to meet and talk we'll meet and talk."

The sheriff said any contract for him to run the city police would require a lot of work by the County Commission, city government and himself.

Mr. Littlefield told the Times Free Press in a previous interview that there was a possibility that, as the constitutionally mandated head law enforcement officer of the county, the sheriff could step in as head of the police department under a $1-a-year contract, since Chattanooga residents pay a portion of the sheriff's salary through taxes already.

The sheriff rejected that contract proposal.

"I'd be crazy to do that," he said.

Sgt. Hewitt said he respects the sheriff and his work running his office, but he thinks it is unreasonable to ask the man to run both departments.

As for the rank-and-file officers on the streets, the sergeant said that whatever happens in the top ranks, "we're going to go out there and do our job the best way we know how to do it."

Click this link to read about the reaction from the county commission.