Firing, rehiring of police chief challenged

Published 10:04 am Friday, September 4, 2015

As reported in Wednesday’s edition of The Tidewater News, Newsoms Police Chief Jeffrey McKenney’s employment was terminated by Mayor Kenneth Wayne Cooke on Aug. 18. In a letter obtained by the newspaper dated Aug. 17, Cooke notified McKenney of the termination, insinuating that he had falsified his time sheets.

Mayor Cooke goes on to reference concerns raised by Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Cooke in a letter to the mayor dated October 2014. In it, Commonwealth’s Attorney Cooke cites a 2012 grand jury indictment in which McKenney was charged with one felony count of obtaining money under false pretenses while employed by the Dinwiddie County Sheriff’s Department. The charge stemmed from allegations that McKenney had overstated the overtime hours he worked while a deputy sheriff there. McKenney agreed to repay the roughly $1,000 in losses incurred by the county, and the commonwealth’s attorney handling the case dismissed the indictment.

“I find that such dishonesty leaves me unable and unwilling to put McKenney on the stand to testify,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Cooke said in the letter. “He is no longer deemed a credible witness by me and, as such, will not testify in any criminal or traffic matter handled by my office.”

The mayor’s letter to McKenney on Aug. 17 stated that, “It has come to my understanding that the overtime hours are too many. As I look into it, it looks like on several occasions on your time sheets that the hours are more than one person can do in a day and still be able to function on the job … Also, a lot of your court cases that have appealed to [Commonwealth’s] Attorney Eric Cooke. You and I both know that according to the letter that we received from him that he will not use you as a creditable [sic] witness.”

Mayor Cooke then gave McKenney the option of resigning with four weeks of severance pay to supplement his search for other employment or be relieved of his duties as chief of police. McKenney was given the deadline of 6 p.m. on Aug. 18 to decide, and he was ultimately terminated when he did not respond to the mayor’s request.

“Failure to return all equipment or documents including summons, bank cards, gas cards, etc., may result in the town of Newsoms to turn all items over to the Southampton Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office for prosecution,” the mayor wrote in a separate letter to McKenney on Aug. 18.

None of the equipment, documents or police vehicle were returned.

Cooke then appointed police officer Jerry Studer as interim chief and canceled McKenney’s credit card and phone service.

On Aug. 20, at an emergency meeting called by Newsoms Town Council, Jack Randall, attorney for McKenney, told council that that the mayor had no authority to fire McKenney.

Randall said that his understanding of McKenney’s termination at the time of the meeting was very limited.

“It was really one letter from the mayor and very ambiguous,” Randall said.

The attorney also said he was unaware of any hiring or firing guidelines, and that he could not find any town bylaws or statutes. After hearing from Randall, town council reinstated McKenney. Mayor Cooke tendered his letter of resignation later that evening, which he confirmed to The Tidewater News on Monday.

Upon visiting town offices in Newsoms on Thursday, a request made by the newspaper for a copy of the town charter and bylaws was unsuccessful. When questioned if such a charter or bylaws existed, town clerk Ruth Dunn said, “They should be somewhere. I’ve never had an occasion to look for them, but I don’t know where [they are].”

Dunn then directed any further requests for such documents to town attorney Tim Drewry. Multiple attempts to contact Drewry have been unsuccessful as he has failed to respond to calls and visits to his Courtland office.

The newspaper has also been unable to obtain a copy of the mayor’s resignation letter. Mayor Cooke and members of town council have been unwilling to elaborate on the reasons given for the resignation.

More information will be published by The Tidewater News as it becomes available.