A year to the month after the Wood Heights Mayor and aldermanic board threw out the police department, voters threw out the Mayor.
Did one have to do with the other?
“I have no comment on that,” Mayor Robert Pettegrew said.
In addition to a change in leadership, the city faces a Sunshine Law violation allegation leveled by the Missouri Attorney General’s Office.
Whether the change in city leadership approved by voters April 2 will lead to a return to community policing remains unclear, police advocate Darren Hart said Friday.
“It was the highest turnout for alderman and mayor in the Wood Heights city history of voting,” he said.
Voters also elected Hart’s wife, Katherine Hart, to the council.
With a population of 687 as of 2017, 225 people voted. Frank Davitt received 144 votes to 81 for Pettegrew.
Davitt said the public wants local police on the streets.
“I’d like to get the police department back in as soon as possible,” he said.
Davitt and Katherine Hart represent two of three votes needed to reinstate the department. He said he can only hope to get at least one more vote.
“We’re kind of hoping to get one of the other aldermen on our side,” Davitt said. “Maybe they’ll have a change of heart.”
Since city leaders stopped providing police protection, the cash-strapped Ray County Sheriff’s Office has been responsible for answering calls.
Darren Hart spearheaded the opposition to disbanding the police department. He and scores of other city residents sought and received an injunction that prevented city officials from selling off department assets, including police vehicles.
“City residents had banded together and were pretty upset at the decision to disband the police department,” Darren Hart said.
The aldermanic board allegedly took the vote without proper notice and behind closed doors.
“The Sunshine Law prohibits that kind of meeting from taking place,” Darren Hart said.
Residents also hired an attorney, which led to the injunction against the city to prevent selling police assets.
Within the last few weeks, interest in the issue intensified because city officials made changes to part of the city building that includes the former police headquarters, despite the injunction, Darren Hart said.
“They took down the police department office and put up some ADA restrooms,” he said.
The building needed restrooms to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Darren Hart said, but that does not excuse the potential violation of an injunction. As a result of the city’s action, the Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit.
The petition before the court, filed by Attorney General Eric Schmitt, states Wood Heights on April 16, 2018:
• “Improperly shielded from public view the vote to disband the city’s police force”;
• Alderwoman Hillery Heigel made the motion to disband the department, removing the chief and four part-time officers – she would resign a few weeks later with reasons including “we failed the current residents by not educating them to the needs and infrastructure of Wood Heights”;
• City officials voted unanimously to disband the department due to “financial concerns,” a key point because talking about money behind closed doors is not an allowed exception to the Sunshine Law;
• City officials intended to sell department assets; and
• City officials intended to repurpose the space the police department had been using.
Schmitt’s office asked the court to issue civil penalties against Wood Heights, for allegedly violating the law purposefully; to void “any action to disband the police department”; and to have the city pay the state’s costs and attorneys’ fees.
Voiding what the council did is not the same as reestablishing the department, the attorney general’s press secretary, Chris Nuelle, said.
“It’s not about forcing them to reinstate the police department, it’s just about wanting to hold a vote to disband the police department in an open meeting,” he said.
This means the aldermanic board, in the state’s opinion, erred by taking the vote behind closed doors, but if aldermen decided to hold a re-vote on the issue in a public meeting, then the law would be satisfied regardless of the vote’s outcome.
The exact amount of monetary penalties the state might seek is not yet known, Nuelle said.
“That will be made clear a little further down the line,” he said.
Darren Hart said city residents who opposed disbanding the police department are leaving what happens next up to Schmitt’s office.
“We’re going to be backing away now because the Attorney General’s Office is going to take the lead in the case,” he said.
After last year’s decision to save money by ending the department, the newspaper reported city residents met with aldermen in a contentious meeting, with “several residents demanding impeachment, recalls and/or resignation of the mayor and board members. Many attendees left City Hall and gathered at the Wood Heights Fire Protection District, whose members now also feel targeted by the city.”
With Davitt as mayor, Darren Hart said he anticipates city leaders will review what they can do about potentially restoring the police department, but restoration is not guaranteed.
“Finances at the city are tight, there’s no question about that,” he said.
Davitt agreed money is a key factor in whether the department reopens.
“We have to go over the budget to see how we sit financially,” he said.
Pettergrew declined to comment on whether the city could afford to bring back the police.
Three public safety-related issues on the Wood Height ballot all went down to defeat. Darren Hart said he believes that may reflect a lack of trust in the former administration that new leadership might be able to overcome.
“Public safety comes at an expense,” he said. “We had some tremendous volunteer police officers who donated a lot of time to do city activities. They did a lot.”