The Ludowici City Council suspended Police Chief Richard Robertson with a 2-1 vote during Thursday’s called meeting.
The meeting was called to address a termination letter Robertson sent to Officer Raymond Govero on Monday, a move that is beyond Robertson’s authority as outlined in the city’s personnel policy, according to acting city clerk Cindy McClelland. The vote followed explosive dialogue about the police department’s practices and authority. Councilman Jim Fuller made a motion to suspend Roberts, and it was seconded by Frank A. McClelland Jr. Johnny Manning opposed the motion, while Gwendolyn Davis and Mary Hamilton abstained.
Robertson, who has served as chief since 2008, resigned from the job in January 2010 but was rehired less than two weeks later. During the Thursday meeting, he read a statement defending his actions.
“Yes, there are some bad hires since I’ve been here, but we eliminate them as soon as we identify them,” he said, adding that the police department is the only department in the city that advertises its job openings. He added that if the city chooses to retain an officer whose termination has been recommended, the chief and city are both liable to suits.
“If you all were planning on going into any executive session to discuss me in any adverse way, or any disciplinary procedures, I request that it be in an open forum, and I waive any rights to privacy,” Robertson said.
Fuller asked Robertson who had given him the authorization to advertise job openings.
“It has to be done here, that’s the first thing,” Fuller said, motioning to the council bench. “We do this, you don’t do it — you’re not an elected official in this town, we are. The second thing is liability. If you say that there’s an adverse employee, the city’s in a liability — as far as I’m concerned, we’ve been in a liability ever since we rehired you back after you quit before.”
“Mr. Fuller, with all due respect, which you seem to lack for me, if you all are going to fire me today, then you do what you’ve got to do,” Robertson said. “I’m not going to stand here and take a tongue-lashing from you or anybody else.”
“You will take a tongue-lashing from me, because I have the floor,” Fuller said. Robertson repeatedly said, “No, I will not,” and stormed out of the room.
Fuller explained that the issue of department head authority has come up in the past and that the city’s charter dictates that department heads are authorized to suspend employees and present the cases to the council but are not able to terminate outright.
Ludowici resident Janis Goode spoke up from the audience and said, “Your dad has fired a lot of people.”
“They were fired at the table,” Fuller responded. His father, James Fuller, was a water superintendent and is the Ludowici mayor-elect who will take office in January.
“Anybody with any mind knows why this man was terminated …,” Fuller said. “He fired him because (Robertson) thinks that (Govero) voted the wrong way in the past election. The election’s over. James Fuller is going to be the mayor the second day of January when they swear him in — it doesn’t matter what anybody thinks about that, that’s what is going to happen ... He can’t let go of the fact that he picked a losing side.”
In his termination letter, Robertson cited Govero with inability to follow directions and lack of honesty. He listed multiple dates and times that Govero reportedly was spending time at a Gill Street residence when there were no calls to the address. The chief also alleged that Govero spent more than two hours at the Long County Sheriff’s Office without reason and repeatedly refused to wear his seat belt, which is mandated by department policy.
On Wednesday, Robertson withdrew Govero’s termination letter but said he would recommend that the city council not rehire Govero during the January meeting. Each January, Ludowici city employees are required to reapply for their jobs.
In a Wednesday letter to the council and mayor, Robertson wrote that he had consulted with four of five council members and Mayor Myrtice Warren — and sought approval — before issuing the termination.
“Originally, all four city council members and the mayor were in agreement that I was doing the right thing in providing Govero with a termination letter,” Robertson wrote. “Later, one council member changed his mind and asked that I wait until January.
“Because my attempt to terminate one bad apple has turned into a political football, I have decided to withdraw the termination letter.”
At several points during the meeting, council members suggested that the meeting be adjourned because it had become focused on arguing and airing grievances rather than resolving the issue.
When the five-member council voted on Robertson’s suspension with a 2-1 record, some confusion arose about whether the motion carried under parliamentary procedure.
Both Hamilton and Davis opted to abstain because they felt the situation was “a mess” that they did not adequately understand. McClelland said that vote abstentions do not count for the majority or minority but rather allow the majority’s vote to pass.
A meetings procedure handbook posted on the Georgia Municipal Association website affirms McClelland’s statement, saying: “Silence is consent. Nonvoting members agree to accept the majority decision.”
“Can I say something?” Hamilton asked. “These last three meetings I’ve been to, you all have got issues. It’s a lot of personal things going on here — I came here for the betterment of the community, my community. I’m coming up to hear all this personal stuff now . … We need to think about what is best for the community — all this madness between one another, you all need to get that out of the way.
“For one thing, when you all employ all of these people, you don’t employ qualified people, you employ family members — if you would run these ads in the paper and hire qualified people, none of this stuff would happen.”