The Ocean View Town Council voted 3-2 at a special meeting on Tuesday night to change Police Chief Ken McLaughlin’s contract to read that he will now report to Town Manager Conway Gregory, after years of McLaughlin reporting directly to the town’s mayor. The town manager position has only existed in the town since early 2007, and McLaughlin has continued to report to the mayor since then.
Council Members Roy Thomas, Perry Mitchell and Richard Nippes voted on Tuesday to change McLaughlin’s contract, while Mayor Gordon Wood and Councilman Bill Wichmann voted to keep the contract as written. Those who voted for the change cited language in the town charter that now requires the town manager to oversee all administrative manners.
Wood was not happy with the decision, and said the vote was cast with hopes of striking power from the mayoral position.
“They were willing to throw the chief under the train in order to take power from the mayor,” Wood said in a statement. “I could care less about power. My concerns are the ethics of unilaterally breaking a contract and risking huge costs and a judicial award to the chief, plus the human impact [to] the chief and his family. Has he served us well?”
Mitchell said that McLaughlin’s contract was a violation of the town’s charter, terming it “an outrage,” and that the council must adhere to that charter by law.
“The charter specifies that the town manager is the chief administrator of the town and serves as head of the administrative branch of government,” Mitchell said in a prepared statement. “It says that the town manager can appoint and remove all subordinate offices and employees of the town. He also has a responsibility of enforcing the town’s personnel policies. This, this provision conflicts with the chief’s contract.”
Mitchell also discussed the relationship between the office of chief of police and the mayoral position.
“This is the problem: The chief’s contract gives the mayor substantial power, thus destroying the careful equation of power set up by the Charter,” wrote Mitchell. “The contract allows the mayor to supervise the largest department of the town, preside over 54 percent of the town’s budget and dictate policy on public safety. If the contract is allowed, it would change the premise of our form of government.
“The Mayor’s power could be used to frustrate the majority on the Council and there is some evidence of that happening. Our charter contemplates that policy is made by the majority on the Council, not one individual [councilman] or Mayor,” he wrote.
Many in the community have been afraid that this decision would result in McLaughlin resigning the post he’s held since May 2001. A prayer vigil and signs posted around the community in recent weeks have voiced support for the chief. McLaughlin has retained council in the matter, but has said in the past that he wanted to fulfill his contract to the town.
Wood said Wednesday that he was concerned that resolving the contract dispute through the court system could end up costing the town hundreds of thousands of dollars, plus the cost of hiring a new chief of police, since McLaughlin is in the middle of a four-year contract. He said he felt the town had made sufficient change by putting the police department’s budget under the town manager’s auspices while continuing to have McLaughlin report to the mayor.
The hiring of an outside attorney in April to review McLaughlin’s contract also posed concerns for Wood, who has said he cannot find evidence that that hiring decision was properly made by the full council at that time. Wood proposed Sept. 9 that council reconsider a subsequent decision to retroactively approve that work, but that move was blocked by the same three-member bloc on the council.
The Coastal Point was unable to reach McLaughlin for comment before going to press.