Police officers group says grievance meetings should not be closed

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COLUMBIA - The executive director of the Columbia Police Officers' Association voiced concern Tuesday about a proposed change to a city ordinance that would mean hearings on the grievances of city employees would no longer be open to the public.

CPOA Executive Director Dale Roberts said, "Every law enforcement agency around is going to more transparency. That is the word of the day, more openness. So our question is, why are we going backwards and moving away from transparency and openness."

The ordinance currently states city employees have the privilege of openly appealing grievances involving suspensions without pay, dismissals or disciplinary demotions against them. The proposed change amends Chapter 19 of the City Code to make the hearings closed to the public.

City Manager Mike Matthes said the proposal is designed to modernize how the city protects its employees.

"These processes are internal and private, and we owe it to our employees to keep those private," Matthes said

Roberts said the 136 police officers that are a part of CPOA do not want to lose their right to a public hearing, which they believe is a constitutional right.

Roberts said, "We are adamantly opposed to the change. We don't understand the need for it. We feel it is a step backwards. We certainly oppose it and just have to wonder, what is the city trying to hide?"

Roberts said he can only speculate as to why the city is doing this. He said it could have something to do with the Rob Sanders case. Sanders was found not guilty of third-degree assault in October 2013 involving pushing inmate Kenneth Baker into a holding cell. Roberts said he believes the public nature of the case could have impacted the proposed change.

Roberts also said it is not related to a Facebook post made by Roberts this summer where Roberts made a post marking the one-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown as, "Darren Wilson Day."

Matthes said, "This is for all employees, and has nothing to do with Rob [Sanders]. It is about the fire department, other employees, all of them."

The council member from the Third Ward, Karl Skala, said he does not think all hearings should be closed, but would rather the city look at each case separately.

"Usually closed meetings need to be closed on a case-by-case scenario. You need to consider what the topic is. Also you have to figure out whether or not an open meeting would compromise the position of an employee," he said.

Officers or city employees filing grievances will still have the right to a personnel advisory board hearing, but would no longer have the right to a public hearing under the proposed change.

The City Council will vote on the proposal Sept. 21.