By Dennis Minich
During the past week, the Garden City Board of Aldermen has voted to lay off the city administrator and the entire police department, except for Chief Thomas Alber who has been placed on indefinite leave without pay. The board voted on the layoffs Nov. 13 then met in emergency session Nov. 15 to vote on Alber’s suspension.
Neither the mayor nor members of the board of aldermen would comment on the situation, but the city’s attorney, Chuck Weedman, said last Friday the layoffs were part of moves being made to address budget concerns in the city.
“The board voted 4-0 to lay off all of the police department except for the chief,” Weedman said. “They voted 4-0 to lay off Janet Burlingame from her position as city administrator/city clerk.”
Weedman explained the city would not be without police services.
“In addition to the regular patrols from the sheriff’s department, the city has arranged for sheriff’s deputies to provide police services for the city,” Weedman said.
The cuts reportedly will save the city about $150,000 annually.
Although social media reported seven police officers were laid off, Weedman said there were only two full-time and one part-time police officers laid off. The others were reserve officers who were not scheduled for regular shifts.
Weedman said city officials are having to take a look at all expenditures in the city as leaders focus on restructuring city expenses. He said the budget for the police department was about $150,000, which he characterized as “a lot for a city of 1,600 people.”
Burlingame confirmed she had been laid off and said she was surprised by the move.
Alber said he was notified on Monday of his suspension.
“I am not an attorney or anything, but it seems to me that if you are indefinitely suspended without pay, you have been terminated,” Alber said.
Special requirements are made for the removal of a police chief according to state law. Missouri statute 106.273 states chief law enforcement officers can be discharged for just cause. Among causes listed are: unable to perform his duty; committing an act deemed to have reckless disregard for public safety; has caused a material fact to be misrepresented for any improper or unlawful purpose; acts in a manner with the sole purpose of furthering his or her self-interests or inconsistent with interests of the public or governing body; has violated any laws or has been deemed insubordinate or in violation of a written established policy.
Under those circumstances, a chief must be given written notice 10 days in advance and have the opportunity to appeal for the governing body where a two-thirds vote would be required to terminate.
Alber said he was not given a reason for his suspension, but did say Mayor Daniel Cantrell had told him to take down a Facebook post from Tuesday informing the public of the department’s layoffs.
“I refused because when they lay off the police department, it becomes a public safety issue and people have the right to know,” Alber said.
He also said he was suspect of the layoffs being budget related because the city had passed a budget in June and his department had come in under budget since then.
Weedman pointed out the city’s budget issues have been developing for some time. One of the main issues comes from debt service on the public swimming pool. The city is obligated to more than $80,000 per year in principle and interest and it costs the city approximately $17,000 annually to maintain and staff the facility. The city is also reportedly having to subsidize the payments for the community center as well.
“Unfortunately, there is nothing they can do about the swimming pool,” Weedman said. “If they defaulted the bond holder would sue them. Plus, they would never be able to borrow money again.”
Weedman did confirm the full-time police officers laid off were told jobs were available for them in another city in the Kansas City area.
Garden City is not the first city in Missouri to cut police staffing. The city of Windsor with a population of 2,839, closed its department and Odessa, which has a population of 5,199, shuttered its police station in August 2016.
“It is unfortunate, but it’s happening in many small towns,” Weedman said.
Although he would not comment further, Cantrell placed the following post on Facebook Nov. 14.
“First I’d like to apologize to the citizens of Garden City on behalf of the city of Garden City and the council for the chief of police misinforming the public on Facebook about no coverage when it is his job to continue to police our City and it has always had the backing of the county sheriff when they are absent or off duty and they have a clear presence even when our officers are on duty.
We in the city are sad that this is what it is come to due to the budget of this city. We simply can no longer continue to travel down this road. This is something I as Mayor and this council inherited. This council has unanimously voted on this layoff being in the best interest of this city. The citizens of this city have placed these council persons in this position to make good decisions for our city. We all as a whole feel like that is exactly what we’re doing.
Please don’t forget that our families live here also. I have spent a lifetime here of 58 years and have nine grandchildren in this town. Most of the council has also been here almost their entire lives and have raised their families here and continue to do so.
For many years the city police department has been operating over budget. The council of this city and I have looked at the budget for some time now and deemed it necessary to make the cuts necessary to help the city prosper and not fail. That included cutting the city administrator position and a few officers from the police department. We lost two full-time positions and a part-time position in the police department.
We should still have the reserve officers when the grants are available.
I believe and we have several men to cover that. We also have the backing of the county as I have talked to Sheriff Jeff Weber and he has continued to assure us that when there are no officers on duty especially when we have no officers during the weekend that his officers will answer to the 9-1-1 calls and make their presence known otherwise. The same as they have always done. They are very good to us and we are blessed to have them.
When I left city Hall today the sheriff’s department had someone pulled over at our police department while I was in fact speaking to Chief Albers and this is the second time that their presence has been in town today that I know of.
So please be patient while we restructure and again, I assure you we are covered and will continue having police presence despite this misinformation being put out on Facebook and to the news media. We wish all of those involved in this layoff no ill-will. Believe me when I say that this Council and I as Mayor have this city’s back at all times.”