Oakland Aldermen Terminate Police Chief
By David Howell
OAKLAND – After serving 13 years as police chief in Oakland, Russ Smith has been terminated by the Board of Aldermen. Smith reported he received a letter from Oakland Mayor Riley Swearengen Tuesday notifying him that he was no longer employed by the Town of Oakland.
The letter came after a special board meeting in Oakland Monday night.
“The Board has instructed me to inform you that your employment with the Town has ended. You should promptly return all Town property and should not hold yourself out to be a Town employee in any manner,” Swearengen wrote in the letter.
Smith said he turned in his equipment after receiving the letter Tuesday.
The termination stems from an ongoing dispute between the police chief and city officials that started back in August after aldermen voted to reduce funding for the department, reducing the line item for payroll from $86,000 annually to $70,000 at the start of the current fiscal year. Smith told the Herald he continued to operate the department, which includes four part-time officers and his full-time position as chief, at the reduced amount allocated in the budget.
Smith said the situation escalated in October, when aldermen passed a resolution to approve the police to work four days a week, Thursday to Sunday, and then only four eight-hour shifts starting after 2 p.m.
Smith also said the aldermen were overstepping their authority by dictating when officers are scheduled to work, and he continued to schedule shifts on days not authorized by aldermen.
“There is an Attorney General’s opinion on this, they can’t interfere with the day-to-day operations of the department, it’s a violation of the separation of powers,” Smith told the Herald, adding that he reached out to the Attorney General’s office and received an opinion addressing a similar issue.
“Matters such as assignment of duties and scheduling work shifts is solely within the purview of the police chief, whether elected or appointed,” an attorney in the AG’s office wrote in the 2006 opinion.
According to Smith, the situation came to a head during the Dec. 4 meeting with allegations from town officials that the police chief and officers were disrespecting the aldermen in a heated exchange.
During that meeting Smith left the meeting and told aldermen, “Y’all can have it, I’ll have my stuff out of here in a week,” according to Smith and the letter from the Mayor.
The board took no action at the Dec. 4 meeting and Smith continued to work.
“It wasn’t a resignation,” Smith told the Herald. “I told them I wasn’t going to run the department the way you are wanting me to run it,” the chief explained, reiterated that the chief is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the department.
The matter came up again during a special meeting on Dec. 10, and aldermen voted to accept his statements as a resignation but did not initially inform Smith of their decision. Smith continued to work until Monday, Jan. 7.
The matter also surfaced in the Jan. 3 city board meeting, but the board took no action on Smith’s employment during open session of the meeting. Smith said the aldermen entered executive session to discuss his position.
“I have a copy of every set of board minutes and there has been no action by the board,” Smith said about the termination.
Smith also said the board has taken no official action on hiring a replacement, according to the minutes.
“The mayor attempted to appoint one of my officers as interim chief, but I am not aware of any board order authorizing him to do that,” Smith added.
Smith said his pay has also been withheld for three pay periods, including time he worked in early December.
The letter he received from Mayor Swearengen informed him that he would be paid through Jan. 7.
“I had a duty to operate the police department within the law,” Smith said Tuesday after he received the letter. “I refused to run a department four nights a week, a total of 32 hours. I was still able to stay in my budget, but you can’t put a price on crime, I refused to do that,” Smith explained.