Benton Council votes down new police chief recommendation; councilmen object to interview process, appoint Hicks interim chief instead

Capt. Jeromy Hicks listens as Benton Mayor Rita Dotson reads a resolution that would have appointed him police chief for the Benton Police Department Thursday at City Hall. Hicks was appointed interim chief instead, to allow time for Dotson to consider whether to offer a recommendation for a vote or begin the interview process over again with all six city council members present, after council not involved in the hiring committee expressed concerns about casting an uniformed vote.

Benton City Council on Thursday in a 3-2 vote rejected a committee recommendation to appoint 19-year veteran Capt. Jeromy Hicks as the city’s new police chief during a special-called session at Benton City Hall.

Councilmen Sherra Riley, Chris Smithmier and Charlie Edmonds opposed a resolution to appoint Hicks on the basis that they had not been present for interviews of the seven candidates screened for the position. Councilman Stanley “Butch” Holland was absent from Thursday’s vote.

It’s nothing personal, according to Riley, who first objected to the vote. Riley said Mayor Rita Dotson had told her that to keep the interview process from being public by having a quorum, only three council members could participate in the hiring committee. However, hiring and termination of personnel fall under executive session exceptions in open meetings laws.

“This is an appointment which will affect the department and the community,” Riley said. “My obligation is to our citizens and their safety. Without a full knowledge of all the candidates that applied, I cannot in good conscience make a decision without more information. We need more council involvement and more time to make the decision. If Jeromy is the right candidate, he will be the right candidate two weeks from now, as well as today. … Do I disagree with your decision, the committee’s decision? I’m not saying I do or I don’t. I just need to (know more).”

Sherra Riley reads her reasoning behind opposing a vote for a new police chief Thursday during a special-called city council meeting at Benton City Hall.

Regardless, Riley also said she would put her full support behind whoever the council appointed as chief.

Dotson said she was unaware the matter could be dealt with full council present without inviting the press, which she said would be inappropriate during an interview process.

Councilwoman Rita Murray, who was on the chief selection committee, said she felt that any one of the candidates who applied would have been a suitable replacement. However, she said she felt Hicks edged the competition and it would be a disservice to Benton residents and the department to pull back from the vote.

“It was done fairly,” Murray said. “We debated, we went over everything. We spent a lot of time on our final decision, and our final decision was that Jeromy was the best. He’s got 19 years, I think, in here; he’s the captain now, which is the one step below the police chief, and I feel like we would do a disservice to all of our city candidates – city policemen – that if we took someone over him, because he is very qualified. My vote still stands for Jeromy.

“The mayor did not even have to form a committee,” Murray added. “… In the past, the mayor interviewed the people, selected the people, and nobody in the city council was involved in it. So, she tried to make sure that it was a fair and above board, and I think we would do a very disservice if we did not select … today.”

Murray questioned why fellow councilmen did not voice concerns about the process until Thursday’s vote. Riley said that she and those not on the committee had been unaware of when meetings were held and hadn’t known about the possibility for all six council members to be present for the screening process until Thursday morning.

Smithmier said it was a difficult decision, as Hicks was a friend and neighbor, but he could not throw his weight behind a vote when he had no direct knowledge of other candidates, either. Smithmier said he had thought the Thursday meeting would give time for discussion, rather than an immediate vote.

“I thought even up till Tuesday, when (Dotson) sent the email or text seeing if we could meet today, that there was still going to be some discussion,” Smithmier said. “But evidently, there is no discussion because it was a done deal. … She made it sound like in the text that we had something to discuss. There was no discussion. Y’all made your decision; the three of us, all we have is a yes or no vote. I don’t see that’s fair to the taxpayers or to the candidates that apply. That’s just my opinion. That’s where I’m coming from is that I have no voice, so what do I base my decision on? I wasn’t involved in the process, so how can I make a sound decision?”

Lamb agreed with Murray that drawing out the process was unnecessary and said Dotson had taken the appropriate course of action in trying to obtain council input. Lamb also said if other council members had wanted to be part of the vetting process, they should have taken a more proactive role.

“I think we should go forward and just go ahead and name him chief,” Lamb said. “… She tried. … When I found out Tracy was retiring, the first thing I did was contact the mayor and said, ‘How can I be involved in this process?’ You know, I didn’t wait until the committee was formed and then decide, ‘Hey, now, I want to be a part of the process.’ … I’m thinking about the department and how we need to move forward. That’s just how I feel. I think if we just keep kicking the can down the road, I mean Tracy’s leaving Monday, and I think it’s time to move forward.”

Retiring Benton Police Chief Tracy Watwood asked the council to go ahead and appoint someone to serve as interim chief after his Monday departure. Watwood – who took over as chief in 2009 – said regardless of personal feelings, council needed to support whoever took over the position, for the good of the department.

“If I could show you a police department that morale is low, I’m going to show you a police department that’s got issues. You’ve got complaints in your community, I mean, it’s just a bad situation,” Watwood said. “The morale of the Benton Police Department has been priority No. 1 for me. … That starts with you. The morale of them starts with you. As long they feel like you’re backing them, and you’re supporting them, that’s going to keep their heads up. That’s going to keep them moving forward. That’s going to be a reflection not only on them as police officers but on you as elected officials.”

Council appointed Hicks to serve as interim chief in a unanimous vote. Dotson said she would consider whether to call candidates back in for a second round of interviews or to make a recommendation herself on which the council must vote.

“You don’t have to vote for who’s recommended,” Dotson said. “That’s why we come here and do this. … I will give this some strong thought and come back to you all and let you know what I decide, how I want to do this. … I don’t know that we’re going to call everybody in and go back through this interview process, y’all. But you can sit down and look at all the resumes. I asked each officer to provide a three- and a five-year plan; each officer provided that, where they would like to see the department go. You can all sit down and look at those, I’ll make you copies.”

Hicks said he had no other comment on Thursday’s vote.