Action may have skirted Missouri law enacted in 2013

A long simmering controversy boiled over on Wednesday night, June 5, when two members of the Center Board of Aldermen took control of a routine meeting and voted to fire the police chief.

With the City Attorney Joe Brannon and Alderman Shawn Couch absent, Alderman Cristy Browning motioned to fire Police Chief David Ray, which was seconded by Alderman Tom Bramblett. The pair then voted to fire Ray, with Alderman Steven Reynolds voting no.

The action was not on the agenda and resulted during a shouting match, said Mayor Dennis McMillen.

“Well I was really surprised by the action of our aldermen,” McMillen said. “I had no inkling that any of them were inclined to do this.”

The mayor is calling a special public Center Board of Aldermen meeting for 6 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the June 5 action. The board might have violated state laws in firing Ray, because the subject was not on the agenda that must be published 24 hours before a meeting.

The board members also did not follow a law enacted in 2013, which requires an elected board of aldermen or city council to issue to the police chief a written notice of their intentions with specific charges of wrongdoing no fewer than 10 business days ahead of the scheduled action. The law outlines specific items that could be grounds for termination, including misconduct, insubordination, violation of a written policy or committing a felony.

Under the 2013 law, a police chief can demand a public hearing — not an executive session meeting — regarding the elected body’s charges.

“I am pretty upset with the two aldermen who railroaded this,” McMillen said. “This possibly breaks the Sunshine Law and other laws covering [the firing of a police chief].”

The 2013 law is very clear on what procedures need to be followed to fire a police chief, said municipal law expert Paul Rost, a partner with Cunningham, Vogel & Rost, which represents more than 50 units of government and one of the largest municipal law firms in Missouri.

“Without commenting on the specific case, I would say the law is explicit,” Rost said, adding that taking the action to fire the chief may cause some issues with the Sunshine Law. “It’s not to say that you can’t take actions that are not on the agenda, but the minutes must clearly reflect the nature of the emergency.”

The meeting’s agenda included “police business,” which relates to the police chief, Bramblett said.

When asked about the state law governing the firing of police chiefs, he said to ask the city attorney.

“Our attorney was not there… I don’t know where he was,” Bramblett said of the June 5 meeting. “But let me ask you this: In a two-bit town, why would you sue to get your job back when you could go get more money in a larger city?”

His issues with Ray came not long after he took office in April, Bramblett said.

“He had a for sale sign on his pickup truck… on the city lot,” Bramblett said. “Our city ordnance says no vendors or anything without the approval of the council. He knows the law and he broke it anyway.

Bramblett said he confronted Ray about the issue, but the police chief did not take the issue seriously.

Center resident and former alderman Aaron Jackson has helped spark a two-year campaign to oust Ray. In January of 2017, he collected 68 signatures — about 20 percent of the city’s 332 registered voters — on a petition demanding that Ray be fired. But the petition was never officially submitted to city officials when Jackson brought it before the Board of Aldermen.

Jackson was elected to the board during the April 2017 election. He then ran for mayor in the April 2018 municipal election, losing the election with 79 votes to McMillen's 105 votes, or a 57 percent-to-43 percent margin.

Jackson’s Facebook page postings over the last week have celebrated the June 5 vote.

Jackson claims that Ray was hired without a background check, had a criminal history of stealing from previous city governments and issued “bogus summons” related to ordinance violations for cleaning up property in town. Jackson also alleged nepotism, saying that Ray received his job through his relationship with City Clerk Tracey Ray.

Ray told the Hannibal Courier-Post in 2017 that the stealing allegation stemmed from a city shotgun he was repairing amid his retirement from a previous police department in Audrain County. A state trooper reported the gun stolen, but Ray said the prosecuting attorney did not move forward with the case. Ray said he had only been in court once in 2005, claiming bankruptcy as a single father. Ray said he underwent a series of background checks when he joined the Center Police Department two years ago as a reserve officer.