Laurinburg Mayor Tommy Parker said he would like to put a stop to the kind of “surprise grilling” the police chief received recently over minority hiring.
Parker said at this week’s council retreat that city staff should be given advance notice of topics that council wants to discuss.
But several council members took issue with Parker’s suggestion, with one saying it sounded like a “a gag order.”
Parker said it was not his goal to censor council members. He added that he had run on a pledge to return decorum to city council meetings.
“I think we owe staff the courtesy — for the lack of better term — not to ambush them,” Parker said “We are a team. We need to work together. We sometimes put staff in an untenable position by some of our gestures and comments. I think I’m going to wield the gavel a little more at these council meetings.”
When Councilman Herbert Rainer asked for an example, the mayor said Rainer’s own questioning last month of Police Chief John Evans exemplified what he was talking about.
Rainer had asked Evans why his department had not made more of an effort in recruiting black police officers. The department employs about 46 people. About five officers are black.
“The most recent example is your discussion about hiring minority officers when we did not talk about that at the agenda meeting,” Parker told Rainer. “The community deserves meetings that are run for the public good. It is not good for an unprepared staff member or council member to have to field questions that we didn't talk about.”
Rainer told Parker that council members were not restricted to talking about topics from agenda meetings.
Rainer went on to explain that he decided to question the chief after he and others made repeated requests for the police department to become more diversified.
“Sometimes the staff takes too lightly the things we ask for,” Rainer said. “I represent a part of town that is unhappy with the police department. If the people I represent are not happy, I want the people responsible to know about it. If he can’t take a little criticism ….”
Councilman Curtis Leak said he was unsure why Rainer’s questions came as a surprise to the police chief or the city manager.
“No surprises?” Leak said. “Public safety was on the agenda. If the city manager knew that and brought his police chief in there, the police chief should have known the material. He reads the same newspaper as everyone else. Instead, he came giving us statistics from 2010.
“It wasn’t Herbert’s problem. In the future, if you bring a department head in there, make sure he knows his facts. Be sure you know what you re talking about.”
City Manager Ed Burchins said he did not think Rainer’s questions to Chief Evans were unfair.
“Any department head should be able to give answers about things going on,” Burchins said. “Johnny could have answered it, but I just think he didn’t want to take on a city council member in public. He decided I’m better off getting the answers to people in another way.”
Councilman Kenton Spencer said he agreed “in spirit” to Parker’s request, but also urged caution in trying to regulate discussion.
“I understand what the mayor is trying to say with decorum, but it also doesn’t mean that we just sit there and be silent,” Spencer said. “Councilman Rainer has a right and a duty to do what he sees fit.
“Let’s try to be sensitive, but again that doesn’t mean we’re going to go back to not asking pointed questions because it is our duty to ensure that that we look at everything and ask those questions. We just want to make sure our delivery is not to the point where we demoralize people and then it is ineffective.”