The “called” meeting of Clinton City Council went smoothly on Thursday night. Excessively smoothly, by some accounts.
The issue was a significant one. The meeting was called to discuss the dissolution of the city’s Department of Public Safety. Mayor Bob McLean called the meeting to order, and city manager Bill Ed Cannon explained the proposal. No discussion was offered by Council members. It passed unanimously on first reading.
Essentially, the ordinance would separate police and fire protection. Cannon cited a study conducted by the International Association of Firefighters and the International Association of Fire Chiefs that argued that the consolidated public safety model does not work effectively, and Cannon recommended that the Department of Public Safety be dissolved.
After the proposal was moved and seconded, it quickly passed unanimously, and the meeting was adjourned.
At this point, the smoothness apparently ended.
Reporters – identified at wlbg.com as that radio station’s Randy Stevens, Judith Brown of the Laurens County Advertiser and Larry Franklin of the Clinton Chronicle – asked if the matter had been hashed out in advance and not in open session. The WLBG account indicated that, as Cannon began to respond, a former Clinton Public Safety officer, Scotty Peay, asked to address council, even though the meeting had been adjourned.
All the members were still there, and Peay was allowed, though grudgingly, to address them. The former officer criticized the change at length. After Peay left, media members reportedly engaged in a heated discussion with Cannon, and the City Manager became particularly confrontational with Franklin.
Cannon left, and McLean apologized for the City Manager’s outburst, according to WLBG.
Before the meeting started, the Chronicle website (MyClintonNews.com) had already questioned the legality of the called meeting based on provisions of the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
Contacted on Friday, McLean said that Cannon was preparing a news release in response to the incident with journalists.
“I didn’t hear what transpired,” McLean said on Friday. “I didn’t hear the words that were exchanged between Larry (Franklin) and Bill (Cannon). I read about it this morning, and it seemed like a fair and accurate presentation. Bill and I talked, and I suggested that a press release might be helpful. He agreed, and he’s doing that [Friday]. I would like to defer on any further comments until he gets that release to me.”
However, McLean added, “I understand why people who work in public safety would be concerned that they were going to lose their jobs. No one is going to lose his or her job, as far as I can tell. The intent is to make it better serve the people of Clinton. There were no budget considerations that went into this proposal.”
Cannon reiterated McLean’s remarks in the aforementioned release issued early Friday afternoon.
The special meeting “was made based on Council and Cannon’s desire to improve [efficiency] and to ensure the safety and welfare of our citizens and our personnel,” it read.
“I apologize for the manner in which I replied,” Cannon said via statement. “However, it was due to the passion I have to ensure the safety of our citizens and personnel. Just hours prior to the Council meeting, I saw a video that was proof to me that we had narrowly avoided a potentially fatal fire scene due to the lack of professional training of our personnel.”
Mayor McLean said, via the release, “I want to assure our citizens and personnel that this was not knee-jerk reaction. It was a decision that has been and continues to be studied and deliberated to determine what is in the best interest of the safety of our citizens.”
On Friday morning, Cannon accepted an offer from Phillip Russell, former Training Manager at the S.C. Fire Academy to serve as Clinton’s interim fire chief. Russell has 32 years in the fire service, 20 of which were at the SCFA. He will conduct an internal investigation into the fire to which Cannon referred and review training records of Clinton public safety personnel.