BUCKHANNON — Upshur County prosecuting attorney David Godwin criticized the city of Buckhannon for failing to fully fund the requests of its police chief at Thursday’s council meeting.
But the city defended its public safety budget, which accounts for half of the city’s annual expenditures, and noted police funding is the highest its ever been at more than a million dollars a year.
Godwin, who was listed as a registered guest at council’s regular meeting, said he had been bothered by several stories he’d read in The Record Delta in recent months, particularly a story about council approving a $4.2 million budget in which it did not grant all of police chief Matt Gregory’s requests.
“I was very disappointed that you didn’t have the funds to fully fund the police department to keep them at the same level,” Godwin told council, “to replace the aged cruisers and to keep their personnel the same.”
Mayor David McCauley interrupted Godwin, saying, “Pause button, Dave. Our police department budget is the highest it has ever been in the history of the city.”
According to a previous Record Delta story, the police budget for 2017-2018 is $1,051,071, and funding for public safety — including both the police and fire departments — compromises 47 percent of the city’s general fund budget.
Godwin replied, “That may be, but that doesn’t address what I’m saying. They needed three cruisers, and they didn’t get it. They don’t have as many officers as they did three years ago. I didn’t come to argue with you — budgeting is certainly within your authority. I don’t question that. I’m speaking as a constituent, and I’ve heard a lot from other constituents. When they see you buying an old building (the Colonial Theatre) on Main Street and taking out all of your income-producing meters and then not fully funding the requests of the police chief, that raises an issue of your priorities.”
Part of what Godwin asserted is no longer accurate, as the department has since expanded to 11 officers on the force, including part-time officer Tanner Collins and officer Sammy Criss, who was introduced at Thursday’s meeting.
Gregory had initially asked that council fund two part-time officer positions and pay for three new police cruisers. Council ultimately approved a budget with funding for one part-time officer and one cruiser. However, the city also allowed officers to continue to take their cruisers home and use them at all times after contemplating limiting them to on-duty use to save expenses.
Gregory was also able to secure a one-year leasing deal with Enterprise Rent-a-Car, which allowed him to lease two new cruisers, rather than just purchasing one.
McCauley questioned where Godwin had gleaned his information from.
“We believe we’re setting the highest possible bar for police relative to police officer training and preparedness, equipment and vehicles,” McCauley said. “I don’t know where you’ve gotten some of your information, except from perhaps some of those who have spoken out against city council asking questions.”
City attorney Tom O’Neill said, “Some of it frankly sounds like posts on Facebook.”
McCauley added that all department supervisors have needs, but it’s up to council to figure out how to spend taxpayer funds in a responsible manner, and he reminded Godwin that the city has to fulfill infrastructure and other needs in addition to public safety.
“There’s other essential functions, [and] we are required by state statute to do those other things too, Dave,” he said. “We’ve got to do those also.”
Godwin also asked council to “please get away from discussing the matter of ratio of warnings to tickets... That’s a matter of state law; if you want to do that in regard to city law, go ahead.”
Godwin’s comment was likely a reference to councilman CJ Rylands, who had noted during a June council meeting that the city police write more tickets than warnings when compared to other county and state law enforcement agencies.
Godwin told council that it’s the mayor’s duty to ensure that municipal police are upholding state law.
“I want to read W.Va. Code 8-14-3,” Godwin said, “and it says, ‘It shall be the duty of the mayor and police officers of every municipality to aid in the enforcement of criminal laws of the state within the municipality independently of any charter provision or any ordinance or any lack of ordinance with respect thereto … Failure on the part of any official’ — in this case, the mayor — “or officer to discharge any duty imposed by these provisions shall be deemed official misconduct for which he may be removed from office.”
“That’s a very clear statement,” Godwin added. “Enforcement of state statutes within the municipality are beyond the authority of the city council. It is also the duty of the police officers being supervised by the mayor to enforce those laws and the mayor can’t say, ‘Don’t do it,’ and the officers can’t say, ‘I refuse to do it,’ because it’s their legal obligation.”
Godwin said the county commission has no legal authority to tell him how many cases to prosecute in a given year, which he said was “an analogy” to the mayor’s power over the municipal police department.
Godwin said he was also upset by a Record Delta article which focused on McCauley’s public apology following a February drug abuse workshop at which former officer Nick Caynor allegedly referred to people with substance abuse problems as “druggies,” “potheads,” “meth heads” and “crack heads.”
“An officer used language that some people took offense to, and the thing that bothers me about that, was the whole focus, including in the paper, was ‘Mayor apologizes,’” Godwin said. “It turned away from the issue of drug addiction and to the conduct of the presenter.
“The police department does not need sensitivity training. The person that gave the talk needs some education in public speaking, and the first is, know your audience. What bothered me was a refocusing of criticism of the police instead of following up on what the issue was and really that’s drug addiction.”
While The Record Delta did report on the mayor’s comments, the newspaper also published an article focusing entirely on the workshop itself and has since published several stories about addiction-related issues.