AG orders board to revote on  
disbanding police

City officials held an illegal meeting, disbanded the police department, riled residents and had to defend the action against the Missouri Attorney General in court – the city lost, agreeing to a consent judgment.

“(The) … Wood Heights vote to disband its police department is declared void,” Circuit Judge Kevin Walden ruled.

Darren Hart, the city resident who led the suit against the aldermen, summed up the ruling against city officials.

“They held a vote in private, and that was wrong. That should have been a public vote, and we accomplished that,” he said Wednesday.

Ray County Circuit Court ruled the city must pay $3,000 to the public’s winning lawyer, Mark Ellebracht.

John Parker represented the city.

Walden also ruled the city cannot sell police equipment until and unless a vote to do so occurs legally.

In addition, the court ruled last week, the decision to disband the department does not count; a new vote is required, and that vote is coming.

ANOTHER VOTE

The city resident who stood up to the council’s illegal action, Hart, is focused on what comes next. 

The answer probably will come when the city’s aldermanic board meets Monday, Aug. 19.

“There is going to be a motion to accept the consent judgment from the state attorney general,” City Clerk Sondra Kasserman said. “That will be the first thing that has to be done.”

The city next must vote in a public setting to void the illegal decision made April 17, 2018, to disband the police department, she said.

The third and final step is for aldermen to take a new and public vote on whether to disband the department, Kasserman said. The prospects of the aldermanic board holding a new vote holds suspense following changes to the board since 2018.

WOOD HEIGHTS POLITICS

Voters in the city of 687 residents in April ousted Mayor Robert Pettegrew, who attended last week’s courtroom action, but declined comment. 

The new mayor, Frank Davitt, favors reinstating the department. So does Alderwoman Kathy Hart, Darren Hart’s wife, who also took office in April.

With a vacancy on the five-member board – and remaining Aldermen Bernard Allen and Mark Ragar opposed to reinstatement – the issue would appear stalemated at 2-2, but in fact Allen and Ragar hold the upper hand.

“The mayor can propose, suggest and encourage adoption of a proposal, but the mayor only votes to break a tie vote,” University of Missouri Extension’s “Rules for Fourth-Class Cities” states.

A 2-1 vote by Allen and Ragar against reinstatement appears likely, with Davitt being left out of the loop.

Davitt brought two appointees to the board to consider for filling the open seat, but Allen and Ragar rejected both, Darren Hart said.

“They’ve got kind of a battle going on,” he said.

Allen and Ragar could not be reached for comment.

If Allen and Ragar again vote to disband the department, residents can pursue another option, Darren Hart said.

“If 25 percent of the voters in Wood Heights would sign a petition, then it automatically goes to the election process and bypasses the board,” he said. “We’ve got that as a ‘plan B.’”

A vote regarding public safety department funding failed in April. Darren Hart said that should not be taken to mean the public does not want a police department, only that they wanted to make sure the right people held elected city positions.

“The citizens aren’t going to approve any tax increases right now because we’re not spending money wisely at city hall,” he said, though he said Davitt and Kathy Hart have made cost-cutting moves to save thousands of dollars, including a reduction in insurance costs.

WHO SERVES AND PROTECTS?

The Ray County Sheriff’s Office is the default law enforcement agency servicing Wood Heights in the continuing absence of a police department. 

“It’s more fuel, it’s more man hours,” Ray County Commissioner Allen Dale said Thursday.

There is no way the department has the personnel and time to patrol the streets and provide the same level of public safety services Wood Heights residents could expect from their own police personnel, he said.

Prior to the termination vote, the city had a police chief and “approximately four part-time officers,” the consent judgment states.

Pettegrew stated in a letter that the city took the action to disband the department for financial rather than personnel reasons.

The entire department together, Darren Hart said, worked about 35 hours per week, with the focus being to have a police presence that served as a deterrence to criminal activity. Ray County has a handful of people to cover hundreds of square miles and simply cannot provide the presence Wood Heights needs, he said.

“The traffic on 10 Highway is greatly (increased). People have no respect at all for speed limits,” Darren Hart said. “There have been a lot of complaints. We can’t be calling Ray County to complain about every little thing because they’ve got their own things to deal with. Our deal is, the police department we had usually worked. … It was a deterrent. They were peace keepers.

“And now we’ve lost that.”

The city next must vote in a public setting to void the illegal decision made April 17, 2018, to disband the police department, she said.

The third and final step is for aldermen to take a new and public vote on whether to disband the department, Kasserman said. The prospects of the aldermanic board holding a new vote holds suspense following changes to the board since 2018.

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