Newsoms disbands police department

Published 10:40 am Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Former Newsoms Mayor Kenny Cook’s wife, Sandra, speaks at the town council meeting on Monday evening. -- Andrew Lind | Tidewater News

Former Newsoms Mayor Kenny Cook’s wife, Sandra, speaks at the town council meeting on Monday evening. — Andrew Lind | Tidewater News

Following a two-hour closed session of the Newsoms Town Council, members of the board unanimously decided to dissolve the town’s police department on Oct. 8, place Police Chief Jeffrey McKenney on paid administrative leave until the aforementioned date, terminate the employment of Lt. Jerry Studer with cause and accept the resignation of former mayor Kenneth Wayne Cooke. Furthermore, all equipment belonging to the police department, including firearms, keys and vehicles must be returned by 4 p.m. today, Sept. 16.

“I’m disappointed that the department is being dissolved,” McKenney said. “I’ve enjoyed my tenure here in the town of Newsoms. I’ve served with dignity and integrity and respect to everybody, I’ve contributed to the revenue income to Newsoms and I’ve tried to push the department in a positive direction. I’ll continue to fight until justice has been served.”

McKenney’s attorney, Jack Randall, echoed that sentiment, saying, “I’m very disappointed with the decision … We’re going to assess where we’re at and take the appropriate action.”

Studer, meanwhile, at the advice of his counsel, did not provide a statement.

With those in the gallery waiting for an explanation regarding the decisions, several members of the council remained silent at the urging of Town Attorney Tim Drewry. Vice Mayor Harvey Porter and councilman Joseph Stewart addressed the citizens, however, with the former reading a prepared statement.

“We have been faced with a difficult decision,” Porter said. “I hope this will put to rest some of the rampant stuff that’s been traveling the streets and the newspapers and all that. I ask for your support as we move forward to the future and I certainly am open to any suggestions you all may have.”

Stewart, who told The Tidewater News earlier in the day that he was planning to resign after the meeting, noted that he had a change of heart following closed session.

“I appreciate everyone giving me the opportunity to sit behind the desk,” Stewart said. “At the end of this meeting tonight, I had planned on resigning based on things that had happened without my knowledge and the council’s knowledge. I took this position to do what’s best for this town and its citizens … Based on what I feel this town and its citizens need right now, I’m going to remain on this council and do my darnedest to pull through for this town and everyone in this room.”

In his prepared resignation letter which he had given The Tidewater News, Stewart said the citizens may never truly know what precipitated McKenney’s firing and that he fears retaliation to himself and his family if he were to divulge any more information.

“Unfortunately, voicing my opinion on what I believe was wrong morally and possibly legally has been taken by certain individuals as a personal attack on the former mayor,” Stewart said. “I have nothing against the former mayor, personally, only the actions that have been put in place.

“I will not stand idly by while lives are toyed with and the town’s reputation is demolished,” he continued. “I will not be part of the cannibalization that is taking place if I am in no way able to stop it. I cannot comprehend how some people can sleep at night.”

Councilwoman Judith Rose was also going to tender her resignation, but told The Tidewater News that she stayed on the council because it’s the only way she can change what happens in the future.

“Harvey didn’t give a rat’s [expletive] whether we stayed on the council or not,” she said. “He wouldn’t allow us to bring up why this whole issue started in the first place and said it’ll be tabled and heard at the next meeting. But we all know that won’t happen because he’s covering for Kenny [Kenneth Wayne Cooke].”

When asked what caused the former mayor to fire McKenney in August, Rose explained that she may be the cause.

“It started because I asked Jeff to speak to Kenny about drinking and driving with a loaded weapon on his hip,” Rose said. “As soon as Jeff said something to him about it in private, that’s when he got mad and that’s when this all started. Kenny was fine with Jeff’s past problems and said we shouldn’t be concerned with it until Jeff said something to him.”

McKenney confirmed to The Tidewater News that he confronted Cooke about concerns that were raised by citizens of the town who had seen the mayor drinking and driving. Former mayor Cooke, meanwhile, has no record of any alcohol-related incidents.

Rose said there were two reasons that the council unanimously approved to effectively relieve McKenney of his duties by shutting down the police department.

“Jeff deserved a second chance, but Eric won’t give it to him,” she said, explaining that Commonwealth’s Attorney Cooke told the council in closed session he’s already thrown out a number of cases simply because McKenney’s name is on the ticket. “Jeff’s VML [Virginia Municipal League Insurance Program] expires on Oct. 8, and they won’t cover him any longer.”

Documents obtained by The Tidewater News confirm that the VMLIP deemed McKenney uninsurable “for reasons outlined in an Aug. 28, 2015 letter to [the] town attorney from Eric Cooke.” In that letter, Cooke told Drewry, among other things, that he no longer deemed McKenney a credible witness. The VMLIP ultimately said it was willing to rescind its cancellation for the public officials liability coverage if the town develops and adopts appropriate personnel policies and procedures prior to the effective date of cancellation, which includes town bylaws, but no such act took place at Monday evening’s meeting.

As a result of the aforementioned decisions, town council also decided to cancel renovations to the town hall building.

“At this time, since council has voted to disband the police department, I see no further need to pursue this matter,” Vice Mayor Porter said.

Council motioned to have Town Attorney Drewry negotiate a settlement with the contractor in lieu of construction and adjourned the meeting.