Former Manning Police Chief Shaffer: Firing was retaliation

Implicates mayor, tells grievance committee he was prevented from disciplining dishonest officer

BY SHARRON HALEY
Special to The Sumter Item
Posted 8/3/18

MANNING - Former Manning Police Chief Blair Shaffer cited personal retaliation by Manning Mayor Julia Nelson and an effort by city officials to stop him from following state law as the main reasons he was fired last month.

Shaffer made those …

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Former Manning Police Chief Shaffer: Firing was retaliation

Implicates mayor, tells grievance committee he was prevented from disciplining dishonest officer

Posted

MANNING - Former Manning Police Chief Blair Shaffer cited personal retaliation by Manning Mayor Julia Nelson and an effort by city officials to stop him from following state law as the main reasons he was fired last month.

Shaffer made those statements during a grievance hearing on Thursday morning where he presented documentation alleging city officials did not follow state law or the city's policies in terminating his employment.

City Administrator Scott Tanner was first to appear before the city's Grievance Committee. In his presentation, Tanner read the termination letter he personally delivered to Shaffer on July 11. Tanner cited the following reasons Shaffer was terminated by the city's Public Safety Committee: "yelling and speaking in harsh tones" to a city official; raising his voice to a judicial official; failing to follow city policies in promoting officers in his department; and asking police officers to sign a letter affirming that they understood the police department's "chain of command," a letter that Tanner said could raise "possible First Amendment" issues.

The termination letter was among more than 70 pages of documents The Sumter Item obtain on July 19 in response to a state Federal of Information Act request that included Shaffer's personnel file and lists of involved governmantal committees and councils.

Tanner told the members of the committee that Shaffer's conduct toward city and judicial officials was "unprofessional" and that he should never use a tone that at least one council member, whom Tanner did not name, described as "harsh and heated" in any communication with his "superiors" on city council.

In his address to the committee, Shaffer questioned the validity of each of the PSC's reasons for his termination including issues raised in his July 11 termination letter.

Shaffer told the committee members the meeting in which he allegedly raised his voice was not a "public meeting."

"It was a private meeting with the PSC committee and Scott Tanner, and it was an executive session meeting," Manning's former police chief said. "They were not following policies."

Shaffer told the Grievance Committee he did receive permission for the promotions that the PSC considered a violation of the city's policy.

"The promotions were not done in violation," Shaffer said. "Mr. Tanner did approve the promotions. I presented to Mr. Tanner, and he approved each promotion."

In his rebuttal following Shaffer's comments, Tanner admitted he did sign off on the promotions.

"I did sign off on the promotions," Tanner told the committee. "At the time, I was unaware of an internal policy that was passed in 2011. I was unaware of the policy."

Shaffer told the committee that city officials cited public "safety" as a reason for his termination.

Shaffer said he presented council with a report on crime statistics since he became chief in 2008. Shaffer said statistics show that violent crime has decreased during his tenure as police chief.

"Violent crime is down 38 percent. Property crime is down 10 percent. Overall crime is down 14 percent," Shaffer said.

Shaffer also told the committee a report from Todd Williams with the South Carolina Municipal Association gave the Manning Police Department a 100 percent rating on its policies and procedures.

"That directly contradicts what the mayor said about my performance as police chief," Shaffer said.

Shaffer also questioned the manner in which city officials held and ultimately passed the first reading of an ordinance that gave the PSC the authority to fire employees, a point in this saga that The Item has also raised concerns about possibly violating state Freedom of Information Act laws.

Shaffer said while Tanner was going over the city's budget in council's June 5 budget meeting that Nelson received a call and left the room. Shaffer said shortly after that, Councilman Clayton Pack received a call and went downstairs. Shortly after they returned to council chambers, council members voted to go into executive session, he said.

Shaffer added that all the department heads that were present for the budget workshop left, and he remained in the upstairs conference room. Shaffer said that approximately three hours later, Tanner told him the meeting was over and that he could leave.

"When was this discussed?" he asked. "The city did not follow its own rules."

Shaffer said he questioned the legality of the discussion because council members did not specify what they were discussing and did not identify which ordinance they were changing.

"There was no mention of Ordinance 2018-04 that gave the mayor and committee the authority to fire me," he added. "If there was no first reading, they couldn't have had a second reading. It's an unlawful termination by the mayor and the Public Service Committee.

"The proper procedures were not adhered to."

Shaffer said, "Her statement compared to the minutes don't match up."

Minutes from the June 5 budget meeting included in The Item's FOIA request appear to show an ordinance of public policy was discussed in executive session, which is not allowed according to open meeting laws, and that a first reading was voted on without discussion.

Shaffer also told the committee that it wasn't until the second reading of Ordinance 2018-04 that the title of the ordinance appeared on the agenda.

Shaffer said one department head told him they were not made aware of the Public Safety Committee's authority until after he was fired.

At this time during Shaffer's testimony before the committee, Tanner, Nelson and the Public Safety Committee's attorney Kenneth Davis were witnessed by a member of the audience typing into their cellphones.

Shaffer said his firing was "retaliation by the mayor against me."

Shaffer said he met with the PSC in April concerning an officer; however, the concerns "did not warrant action against the officers."

Shaffer told the committee he was having problems with an officer from May 17 until May 23, involving the officer's dishonesty, insubordination to supervisors, false statements, access to video using another officer's password and lying to the police chief about the matter.

"I wanted to terminate (the officer) via policy," Shaffer added.

Shaffer said he took his recommendations to Tanner, who did not agree with his assessment.

"I was not allowed to terminate an officer who clearly violated policy," Shaffer added. "(That officer) lied to me on May 23."

Shaffer told the committee that the problems between city officials and his office began as early as May and involved a traffic stop on Easter.

"The officer did not break (any laws)," Shaffer said. "The mayor asked me to look into the matter. She presented a statement from the person. I (was) suspicious about the statement."

Shaffer said he told the committee that he was responsible for his department and that he wanted to make sure the letter was from the person who made the statement.

"She (the mayor) told me to stand down," Shaffer added.

Shaffer admitted to the committee that he contacted the person involved in the Easter incident.

"I went to that person (and was told that) someone else wrote it," Shaffer told the committee. "He did not write it. The statement the mayor gave me was a false statement."

The letter was not included in the FOIA request.

According to Shaffer, Tanner said, "This is over. The police department does not need to look into the matter anymore."

"The mayor gave me a false statement, and now I'm not to look into the statement anymore," Shaffer added.

Shaffer also told the committee that Nelson told him she had a statement from an officer concerning misconduct. He said when he asked for a copy of the letter, he was denied.

Shaffer said Nelson told him several of his officers came to her because they were "scared of me" because he raised his voice, could fire them or write them up.

Shaffer said Nelson refused to name the officers or any situations to which they were referring.

"She told me to 'Fix it,'" Shaffer said.

Shaffer admitted to the committee that voices were raised during this time because he was being falsely accused and unable to face his accusers.

Shaffer said that prior to his termination, the members of the PSC asked attorneys with the Boykin and Davis Law Firm to investigate the police department and return their finding to the committee.

"To this day," Shaffer said, "(I was terminated, and) I have no clue what they found."

"The mayor was looking for a reason to fire me," he added. "Nothing was disclosed. (There was the) creation of an illegal ordinance to fire me."

He said he remembers the mayor telling him during an exchange on May 29, "I am looking at your face and can tell there are discrepancies."

"Are you calling me a liar?" Shaffer said he asked.

Shaffer said at this time, Pack told him, "No the mayor is not calling you a liar."

Shaffer referred a second time to the time period of May 17 through May 23 when he had disciplinary issues involving a particular police officer.

Shaffer said that in May, Statute 23-23-150 was signed into law that required any police chiefs or sheriffs to report any misconduct issues involving officers to the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy within 15 days.

Shaffer said he met with Tanner and an attorney with Boykin and Davis and disclosed the new statute requirements to them.

On the day before he planned to submit the paperwork pertaining to misconduct by the police officer, he was fired, Shaffer told the committee.

In closing, Shaffer told the committee that during his tenure with the Manning Police Department, he was "never counseled, never written up, never suspended. They never came to me about any issues about raising my voice."

Shaffer said that prior to receiving the termination letter from Nelson, at no time was he called concerning the issues stated in the PSC letter.

Shaffer said his firing was "not good for the city."

Shaffer said he was fired as a result of a "personal retaliation against me and to keep me from following state law."

Shaffer asked the committee to have his pay, benefits and retirement compensation reinstated per the grievance process.

"I'm asking you to decide I was wrongfully terminated and unlawfully terminated," Shaffer told the committee.

In his rebuttal to Shaffer's comments, Tanner told the committee that they were not responsible for determining the legality of any ordinance that was created.

"Your task is not to determine policy," he said. "Your task is to decide if his termination was warranted or not warranted."

Tanner also told the committee that the letter Shaffer referred to in his presentation was a "statement from the mother of her son."

Tanner told Shaffer that "some good things happened while you were here" but that the committee should consider the reasons behind his firing.

After a brief meeting in executive session, the Grievance Committee told both parties they wanted to review the information and would reconvene at 4 p.m. Aug 6.

Manning City Councilman Ervin Davis Sr. was asked to leave Shaffer's grievance hearing Thursday morning by one of the attorneys for the city's Public Safety Committee, Kenneth Davis.

"As soon as I walked into the room, Mr. Davis came up to me and asked me to walk out the room," Councilman Davis said Thursday afternoon. "He told me that if I stayed in the hearing that my vote on the Grievance Committee's recommendation to council on Blair's termination may be challenged."

"If I had known that Mayor Julia Nelson was in the room, I'd have stayed," Councilman Davis said. "When the vote comes to council, she should recuse herself if the vote is tied."