The Recorder – My Turn: Let due process take place in a police racial bias case


Published: 06/19/2022 12:01:50

Modified: 06/19/2022 12:01:30

Being a city councilor can be frustrating. Having worked with dozens of councillors, a city manager, half a dozen councilors and two different mayors, I can tell you it’s hard to get the executive to do what you want. Councilors have blunt tools: cut the budget (they can’t add to it), pass an ordinance (they can’t enforce it), and pass a resolution or talk about an issue (will they listen). None of these tools allows the town hall to act directly.

Being mayor is no picnic either. You have no control over the budget once the city council gets it. You are bound by state budgets, employment laws, insurance regulations, public procurement laws, etc. You can want an outcome, but don’t control it if you have the money to make it happen, and there are things that you have to fund, that the board gives you enough money to do it.

Take all of that, add controversy and politics into the mix, and you have a formula for disaster. The recent verdict in the case against the city of former police officer Patrick Buchanan finding racial discrimination by the department in promotion was certainly alarming. It’s understandable that the public and their representatives on Greenfield City Council want heads to roll. Trying to force the mayor’s hand, they used one of those blunt tools and cut the police department’s budget by the amount of the verdict. They wanted to send a message that Greenfield City Council has repeated time and time again: Greenfield is no place for hate.

The mayor, however, does not have the power to do whatever he wants. The case is on appeal because our insurer insists. They may do it because they think they will win or simply to negotiate a smaller settlement, but they, not the city, control this dispute. If we refuse to support the appeal, the city becomes liable for the entire judgment. The mayor has a fiduciary duty to the taxpayers to make the insurance company pay, after all we have already paid for the insurance.

While the police department was removed from public service, the chief remains in public service because the voters themselves put this position in public service specifically to prevent a mayor from making a political decision to hire or dismissal from this post. With the case on appeal and no further reports, the mayor has no reason to take the action council wants. She took cautious steps to give herself more tools, she put the chief on administrative leave and called for an independent investigation. I’m not saying that all the steps she took were correct in this case, just that she doesn’t have the power to do what the board really wants.

The result was that the police department, in response to the budget cuts, proposed drastic cuts. Recall that the deputy chief and the mayor are bound by a union agreement that the municipal council voted unanimously to finance. To date, the union, understandably upset by the litigation’s implications for the rest of the department, has been willing to sacrifice not for shared leave, but for the acting chief’s spouse who has taken unpaid leave. The result is that more police officers are cut off and those who are least guilty of the action at issue in the litigation. It’s an outcome that few in the public or the board want.

It’s time for the mayor and council to put aside grievances, politics and mistrust. The mayor should propose to council an interdepartmental transfer of a mandatory expense such as health insurance to the police department and commit to filling the health insurance position with ARPA funds or an additional credit on the certification of the money available. The board, seeing now that it cannot achieve what it had naturally intended by the action it has taken, should approve and pass a resolution condemning racial discrimination in all hiring and promotion practices in the city. While the mayor could perhaps simply fill the police department with ARPA funds without the council’s authority, not working with the council would be a mistake for the many future projects where she will need their support.

Finally, while difficult, the voting public must be patient and wait for due process to unfold. Then, after seeing the results of any appeals or independent audits, hold the mayor and councilors accountable for the actions they take after making a final decision. Anger at racial discrimination is understandable and even admirable. Taking misguided action in the wake of this anger is unwise. We make mistakes when we fail to consider unintended consequences.

Isaac Mass is a lawyer and former six-term Greenfield City Councilor


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