Chief’s status is people’s business

Published 8:12 am Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The optional “personnel” exemption to Virginia’s open-records law notwithstanding, disciplinary action against the chief law enforcement officer of a locality should be fully disclosed to the citizenry he is charged with protecting.

City of Franklin officials made a mistake last week when they kept secret the reason for Police Chief Phil Hardison’s absence from work.

Rumors run rampant in small towns. By Tuesday of last week, the streets were abuzz with well-founded speculation about alleged disciplinary action against Hardison, whose treatment of a former police officer had drawn a sharp rebuke from a judge one week earlier.

No one in city government would comment on why Hardison was absent from work. Hardison, to his credit, returned a call from a reporter, but he too refused to say why he wasn’t working. Suffice it to say that the chief wasn’t taking an extended Thanksgiving holiday.

The city manager, city attorney and City Council members were quick to chalk it up as a “personnel” matter and, in turn, none of the public’s business. The Virginia Freedom of Information Act does allow personnel matters to be concealed, but it is purely discretionary. Lawmakers who wrote the legislation understood that there are extraordinary circumstances when the citizenry’s right to know overrides the interest of the affected public servant.

Hardison is not some beat cop, schoolteacher or clerical worker at City Hall. He is this city’s top cop — the man chiefly responsible for the safety of the citizenry. His absence from work for performance-related reasons is absolutely the business of the citizens who pay his salary.