Metro-East News

August 25, 2014

Belleville hires three officers after heated discussion

The routine hiring of three police officers turned into a heated discussion Monday at a special Belleville City Council meeting over a brewing disagreement on communication and procedure issues among city leaders.

Aldermen who were critical of the lack of notice and information about the hiring process were careful to state they support hiring more police officers for the city.

Still, their requests for details as to why three officers resigned in less than a month prompted both Mayor Mark Eckert and Police Chief William Clay to say there are no secrets or conspiracies.

At one point, Clay also cautioned: "Don't let bureaucracy start driving our behavior to the point where you wear me the hell down."

Aldermen ultimately voted 13-0 to approve the hiring of three officers on a probationary basis: Beau W. Barfield, Michael J. Borkowski and Hezekiah Webb.

Ward 3 Alderman Kent Randle, Ward 4 Alderman Jim Davidson and Ward 7 Alderman Trent Galetti were absent.

The hires bring the Police Department force level to 84 officers.

Clay said the following officers resigned in the past month:

* Benjamin Louden resigned June 30 after committing to military service for another five years. The Air Force major previously was on leave from the Police Department for military duty from November 2011 to March 2012 and most recently since June 2012.

* Anthony Branchini resigned July 9 after deciding to take a job with a Department of Corrections in order to return to his home state of Washington.

*Nathan Hagemann resigned July 24 for personal reasons.

Alderwoman-at-Large Lillian Schneider said the cancellation of an Aug. 11 meeting of the Police and Fire Committee, made up of aldermen, meant that she was in the dark over why three officers resigned even though Clay had enough information then to share with aldermen.

Schneider said city leaders should be kept in the loop about issues such as the city being three officers short. She also reviewed a list of how each police officer scored compared to others in the area and asked why the city skipped over some candidates.

Clay said he recommended Barfield, Borkowski and Webb to the Board of Police and Fire Commission after candidates with better scores either took jobs elsewhere or were deemed "unacceptable" after background checks, among other reasons.

Clay said he would be happy to provide information to aldermen if he knew they were interested in this level of detail, but aldermen have to ask. Clay said the City Council sees new aldermen with every election and he cannot know what each new aldermen wants.

Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden said he was not accusing Clay of wrongdoing but he wants to know why it took so long to inform aldermen of the resignations. If anything, a Police and Fire Committee meeting should have been called Monday night.

Ward 1 Alderman Ken Kinsella said it is the role of council to help hire good officers, but he does not think it is necessarily aldermen's jobs to know why every employee chooses to resign.

"I think some of us are micromanaging and we need to keep our noses where we belong," Kinsella said.

Eckert said he would have called such a meeting but the three positions are already included in the budget. The special council meeting was needed because the new officers start the academy training process this Wednesday. If the city had waited, then the officers would miss the academy start date and have to wait months for the next session.

Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult questioned the political makeup of the Board of Police and Fire Commission. She said that state law requires the three members to be of different political parties but they are all registered Democrats.

When City Attorney Garrett Hoerner said he needed time to research the matter, Hult said she expected Hoerner to know state law and the political leanings of the three members of the commission.

"Are you not the vice chair of the Democratic party of St. Clair County?" Hult said.

Hoerner said he did not want to make a "flippant opinion" about the matter before researching state law and other allegations by Hult, especially on appointments made to the commission before Hoerner was appointed in 2013.

Also on Monday, the City Council approved the sale of a home that the city owns at 515 S. 17th St. for $24,900. The city came to own the property for right-of-way purposes in the process of improvements of South 17th Street.

The appraised value was $48,900 and the listed price was $49,900 in October 2013, but city staff said the building has since further deteriorated because of a water leak that caused part of the ceiling to collapse.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 618-239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDJLee.

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