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Pine Ridge residents turn out for meeting, demand change of leadership after police officers resign

Pine Ridge, SC (Paul Kirby) - A crowd of Pine Ridge residents turned out Tuesday night for the November meeting of the town's council. Most people were there to demand that Mayor Robert Wells resign his position after the last of five full-time, acting, or interim police chiefs resigned last month since he took office three years ago. 

The small town’s police department is budgeted for three full-time law enforcement officers. Those are normally supplemented by part-time officers. In three years, five police chiefs who were either hired for the job or selected to be interim or acting chiefs have resigned. In total, at least ten certified officers have come and gone since Mayor Wells’ swearing in. 

In every case but one, the chiefs have resigned. Chief Billy Parker, who was in charge when Wells took office, was, “separated” from his position while out recovering from an injury on Workers’ Compensation. One officer was terminated in 2018. All have cited a hostile work environment and Mayor Robert Wells micromanagement of the department as their reason for leaving.

The small town has a council of five elected officials to lead it. It operates under South Carolina’s Strong Council form of government. The strong council form means that the mayor has no more power than any other members of the council unless a town ordinance gives the mayor authority to do more. In Pine Ridge, one of the powers designated to the mayor by ordinance is the appointment of council members to committees. Within a few moments of being sworn in three years ago, Wells appointed himself as the police commissioner and named Councilman Daniel Davis to serve on the Public Safety Committee with him. That’s when the turnover issue started. 

Tuesday night's meeting started as most do in Pine Ridge. There were some committee reports and mundane business discussed. At the end of the Old Business agenda item, Councilmember Beth Sturkie brought up the problems with the police department. She placed the blame for those issues on Wells and eventually made a motion to remove him from the Public Safety Committee and replace him with Councilmember Floyd Dinkins. This couldn’t be done by a simple vote because that committee's member are appointment in a process written into the town’s ordinances. Changing who appoints the members would require several readings and a vote modify the ordinance to do that. Sturkie’s motion moved forward none the less. Councilmember Floyd Dinkins seconded the motion but when the vote was called, Scott Sims, Daniel Davis, and Robert Wells voted against it. Sturkie and Dinkins voted in favor of the motion. This was a precursor of what was to come. 

The first item in New Business on the agenda was a request by Pine Ridge resident Cheryl Patrick to address the council. She has lived on Sandy Creek Court since 2016. She began by asking the entire council, “What culpability do you feel like you personally have in the fact that we have no police protection?” At that point, Wells told Patrick he was just one vote and was only simply speaking for the council. Patrick pressed on explaining she had directed her question to the entire council eventually asking, “How did we get to this point?”

Mayor Wells began by blaming the lack of police protection and the loss of Pine Ridge officers on several things. He told Patrick they had terminated just one officer and the others had resigned. He said when certified officers are at a point when they are leaving a position, they often resign rather than be terminated. As an officer leaves, a report is sent to SLED reflecting the reason they did so, according to Wells. In order to prevent a negative report from being submitted, the officers choose resignation over termination. Councilmember Sturkie asked for clarification on Wells‘ statement saying it sounded as if he were suggesting that many who left were at the point of termination. Wells explained that wasn’t what he was saying at all, he was speaking in general terms. He pointed out again that just one officer had been terminated since he was elected.   

As the exchange continued, Patrick once again asked members of council to explain why the citizens of Pine Ridge were without a police department. She said that before Wells was elected, she saw Pine Ridge officers pass her home several time daily and that didn’t occur anymore. Councilmember Scott Sims agreed he too had noticed the downturn in service over the past few years. Sims said since he was elected in 2017, when the town hired police officers, they, “just hit the wrong button when trying to hire qualified individuals who could fulfill those needs.” 

Wells explained it was incredibly hard to find anyone to fill any law enforcement jobs right now. He turned to Lexington County Sheriff’s Department South Region Commander Kevin Howard who was standing in the room and asked how many unfilled deputy’s positions that department had. Howard only answered for the region he supervised saying they had 12 or 13 unfilled law enforcement positions. Howard and another deputy had been asked to attend the meeting for security reasons. The mayor had anticipated there would be tense moments regarding the police department discussion and Pine Ridge had no officers to provide that security service. 

At one point during her exchange Patrick, mentioned the issue of service the Lexington County Sheriff's Department provided Pine Ridge citizens. She said her home’s alarm had gone off at one point at 11:00 and the deputies didn’t arrive to check it until 3:30. To her, that wasn’t police protection. 

Several times while Patrick was speaking there were shouts from the floor as people became passionate and frustrated with the answers the council was giving. At one point the mayor told one man that he was out of order after he made a comment about the mayor resigning. 

Eventually, the open meeting was gaveled closed and the council asked everyone to leave so they could go into executive session. After finishing that session, the meeting was reopened, and everyone was advised that the council would seek an agency to assist in the search for a new police chief. 

Before the council meeting concluded, Pine Ridge resident Jennifer Barrier presented a petition that had been signed by 200 people asking that the mayor resign.  Of those 200, all but 17 were said to be residents of the town. Wells was elected mayor with just 82 write-in votes. 

As of Wednesday, November 11th, 2020 Pine Ridge still had no officers of their own patrolling the streets. It remains to be seen what company will be hired to search for and recommend a police chief. How long the process of finding another qualified chief and police officers will take is currently undetermined.  

PHOTO: Pine Ridge Mayor Robert Wells

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