Pine Ridge resident asked Mayor Robert Wells to step down as police commissioner to end controversy
Pine Ridge, SC (Paul Kirby) – Pine Ridge resident, Jennifer Barrier took the opportunity to ask that the town’s mayor and self-appointed police commissioner, Robert Wells, step down from the commissioner’s position during the citizen’s comment portion of the town’s scheduled December meeting Tuesday night. In a statement she had prepared and read before the council and others in attendance, Barrier said, “It is my concern that your management style is not compatible or effective for the day-to-day operations of the police department.” She went on to say, “I and some of my fellow citizens believe your leadership skills are not proven to be productive, some feel they are offensive, as you have crossed boundaries regrading your duties and responsibilities. Officers that have left the department, blame you for their departure. I am asking you to step down as police commissioner.”
Several other residents of the town also complained about a perceived increase in crime in the town during the same citizen comment period. One suggested that cameras might be installed at key points around town to cut down on crime, while another simply said something needed to be done. Some publicly commented about a proposed Dollar General that has looked into locating in the town. That speaker said that these types of stores were a magnet for crime. There have been no approvals given for that construction yet.
A gentleman that lives outside the town came to the podium and began speaking against the mayor’s involvement with the police, but he was quickly told he would have to stop because he didn’t live within the town’s limits. This prompted businessman Rock Lucas to get up and question when the rules of order for meetings had changed. Lucas pointed out that when the mayor tried to sell a piece of his own property to a convenience store chain during the last administration, a long line of residents from the Charwood neighborhood were allowed to speak out against that project. Charwood is outside the town. Lucas said now that the topic was the mayor and the police department, this one man was not allowed to speak even when there was no line of people waiting to do so. In fairness, during the discussion last year on the convenience store and property that Wells owned, he recused himself and stayed completely out of the discussion.
Traditionally, for many years the mayor of Pine Ridge has appointed himself the police commissioner. In the past, that commissioner provided limited oversight of the police department, leaving the day-to-day operations of it to the full-time chief. As was customary, shortly after he was sworn in, Wells also appointed himself police commissioner. He did not resign from that position Tuesday.
For a short period, it seemed as if Wells would handle the job in the way past officials in that position had. However, several months into 2018, the community began to hear from the certified officers that the mayor was showing up on traffic stops and crime scenes and wielding much more influence over the department. Since taking control in November of 2017, the town is on its third police chief and in total, six certified officers have left. Several were fired, one chief was “separated” while out with a work related injury, and several others called the local media to complain that the mayor was constantly meddling in the department’s operations. Most of them resigned for positions with other departments. Because law suits have been filed against the town by former officers the town or mayor are usually prevented from defending themselves or telling their side of the story to the media or publicly, something that can be very frustrating at times.
During the public comments Tuesday, neither the mayor nor the council engaged the crowd. This is taught to local government officials by the SC Municipal Association. That group provides training for elected municipal officials and they teach that engaging with people who speak at public comment sessions of regular meetings is counterproductive. There are other times and ways to actively interact with your elected leaders that includes public comment sessions at workshops, at hearings where public input is specifically requested, or through e-mails, phone calls, or personal visits.
Mayor Wells made no indication he planned to resign from the position of police commissioner now or at any time in the future.