PIEDMONT — Police Chief Alex Oblein doesn't know why city council members are considering getting rid of his department in favor of using county sheriff's deputies.
Piedmont City Council members held a questionable closed-door session this week to discuss the matter and hear a presentation from Canadian County Sheriff Randall Edwards on taking over policing duties. One councilman, Donnie Robinson, refused to take part in the executive session because he didn't think it was legal.
“I felt like some of the stuff that was on the agenda should have been done in an open meeting,” Robinson said. “I didn't feel like I could go into executive session under those circumstances. I didn't feel it was proper.”
Council members did not take a vote on the matter.
Edwards said Friday he doesn't know how the item was listed on the agenda or whether it was legal. He said he gave council members a presentation and answered their questions.
“They wanted a bid on contracting the public safety or law enforcement there in Piedmont to possibly compare to their current budget,” Edwards said. “They asked me to bring a proposal to the council meeting, and they called me into the room and asked me to give it to them and explain it to them.”
City Attorney Mike Segler told council members the agenda item, which was labeled “discussion on police contracts,” was vague but fulfilled the requirements of the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act.
Robinson disagreed. The agenda cited a section of the law that allows for executive sessions to discuss negotiations with employee unions.
Open government expert Joey Senat, an Oklahoma State University journalism professor, said a presentation by the sheriff would not qualify as employee negotiations because the sheriff is not an employee or a representative of employees.
“That exception is intended for negotiating with a union, not to take a bid from another elected official,” Senat said. “There is no reason they shouldn't have discussed that in open session.”
Canadian County District Attorney Mike Fields said he will look into the legality of the meeting if he gets any complaints from the public. Violating the open meeting act is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $500.
“If some citizens have concerns that the open meeting act was violated, they can either make an official incident report with a law enforcement agency or they can submit that directly to the district attorney's office, and then we will consider appropriate action after we've evaluated their complaints,” Fields said.
The Piedmont Police Department has nine full-time officers, including the police chief, and one part-time reserve officer.
Oblein said two open positions have been open for the past several months. One officer left the department a few months ago, and another was fired in November.
Officer Ken Qualls was fired after he made national news by giving a public urination ticket to a mother whose 3-year-old son dropped his pants and urinated in the family's front yard. He has challenged his firing in court.
Oblein said otherwise the department has had no controversy, and he doesn't know why the council is considering disbanding the department.
Piedmont police recently voted to unionize for the first time, joining the Fraternal Order of Police.
Mayor Valerie Thomerson declined to comment, referring questions to the city attorney, who did not return calls Friday.
The police issue was one of several potential open meeting act violations during the Monday meeting. Three other items were on the executive session agenda.
One of the items listed was “discussion and consideration on potential litigations.” The law allows public bodies to discuss pending litigation in executive session, but agendas must be specific about the case being discussed.
Two other items on the agenda concerned a proposed wind farm project near Piedmont that has angered some residents.
The Piedmont Citizen ran an editorial Monday including a letter sent to the council challenging the legal basis for discussing the wind farm issue in executive session.
The council changed course during the meeting, discussing that issue in the open. But the agenda was never changed to reflect that such a public discussion would happen, which concerned Robinson because public bodies are not legally allowed to discuss items that aren't on the agenda.
“You can't just call it an executive session and then come back in the meeting and do something else,” Robinson said. “At the very least, you move it to the next meeting.”