A political pickle for council

Published 8:37 am Saturday, November 21, 2009

In a conflict that seems to have all the clarity of black and white for many folks, this columnist sees shades of gray.

I like Phil Hardison. I like Ronnie McClenny. Clearly, they don’t like each other.

The showdown that resulted in McClenny’s recent retirement from the Franklin Police Department and his public tongue-lashing of the police chief at a City Council meeting has struck a public nerve, with many citizens firmly entrenched in one camp or the other.

The uproar is such that the City Council took the extraordinary step of convening a special meeting Monday to discuss the Police Department. The region’s daily newspaper suggested Friday that the controversy had eclipsed the pending closure of Franklin’s paper mill in the public conscience. If true, it speaks poorly of our priorities as a community.

Though there will be political consequences, the City Council likely made the right call this week in opting to stay out of what appears to be a clash of personalities. Under Franklin’s form of government, the police chief, like other department heads, does not report to the council. He answers to the city manager, at whose will and pleasure he serves.

According to a statement read by Mayor Jim Councill at the conclusion of Monday’s closed council meeting, Hardison has the full support of City Manager June Fleming.

The council could circumvent Fleming and meddle in the internal affairs of the Police Department, but it would step onto a slippery slope that could undermine not only its relationship with Fleming, who has provided fine interim leadership in city government, but prospective future city managers. No competent city manager is going to work for a council that disrespects the lines of authority that are clearly spelled out in the city charter.

That said, McClenny, his supporters and other critics of Hardison and the Police Department have a precious right to be heard and to pressure city government for reform of a department that they claim is out of control.

The police force is the highest-profile entity in city government. Its performance is the subject of intense public interest, especially when crime is as prevalent as it has been in Franklin over the past couple of years.

Because the city manager is not directly accountable to the voters, the City Council is the only recourse for citizens who want changes in the PD. McClenny has vowed to be back before the council. If many others join him, things could get sticky for the council.

An admittedly unscientific poll at www.thetidewaternews.com shows overwhelming public support for council intervention in the controversy. If the numbers are even close to reflecting the mood of the electorate, council members will find it increasingly difficult to ignore the controversy.

Should the public outcry intensify, a way out could be the appointment of an independent panel of outside law enforcement experts with no loyalty to Hardison or his critics to review the department’s operations and report its findings to Fleming, the council and the citizenry.