City attorney tells aldermen that June 5 meeting did not follow law

David Ray remains the Center police chief after an effort by two aldermen to fire the Center police chief was torpedoed Wednesday night during a special meeting of the Center Board of Aldermen.

The 6 p.m. special meeting, called on Monday by Mayor Dennis McMillen, had a single agenda item: review previous board actions. Ray did not attend the meeting.

Aldermen Cristy Browning and Tom Bramblett took control of a routine meeting on June 5 with City Attorney Joe Brannon and Alderman Shawn Couch absent and voted to fire Ray on 2-1 vote. Alderman Steven Reynolds voted no.

The action generated controversy in Center. The City Hall meeting room was standing-room only with more than 50 people in attendance, which included Ray supporters and detractors, who remained calm during the 30-minute meeting.

Brannon told the full board that vote at the June 5 meeting violated a Missouri law enacted in 2013 that clearly outlines procedures for firing police chiefs and said the board’s actions met none of those guidelines. He passed out copies of the state statutes to the board.

“Based upon my analysis of the statutes, the board action last week wasn’t lawful as far as the removal of the police chief, so it is my opinion that David Ray has not been removed as chief,” Brannon told the board.

Brannon said that state law includes a mandate that an elected board of aldermen or city council must issue to the police chief a written notice of their intentions no fewer than 10 business days ahead of the scheduled action.

The law also addresses grounds for termination, which include misconduct, insubordination, violation of a written policy or committing a felony.

Under the 2013 law, a police chief can demand a public hearing to address the elected body’s charges, presenting evidence and offering witnesses.

The only legal way to fire the chief was for a two-thirds vote of all the elected officials in the city, which in the Center’s case would require three of four votes, Brannon said.

“As far as vote last week - the 2-1 vote … that does not constitute a sufficient vote nor was the procedure followed… my opinion is that the chief is still the chief of police here in Center,” Brannon said. “I would advise the council at this time tonight to take action … so that we are clear on-the- record and for liability purposes… pass a motion to void the action of last week.”

The city attorney did not address the issue of whether the board violated the Sunshine Law by taking the June 5 action, which was not in the agenda. Barring emergency conditions, state law requires an agenda at least 24 hours in advance of a public meeting.

Brannon offered to meet with board members individually to discuss the laws that outlines how to fire a police chief.

Browning was clearly unhappy that the public was not able to speak at the special meeting.

“I do have a question, because for a long time, people have been scared of repercussions for stuff  that has happened… and several of them here in the audience tonight to plead their case that Chief Ray be let go,” she said. “There are people here to let the council know first-hand what’s been done to them.”

Brannon said there was nothing on the agenda for a public forum. “That is not proper tonight,” he said.

The Board of Aldermen voted 3-2 to invalidate the June 5 action. Browning and Bramblett voted no, and McMillen broke the tie.

After the vote, one woman spoke up from the crowd. “What about laws he’s broke on the citizens here… what about the harassment that he has done to me and my kids.”

The mayor told the audience that the meeting did not include an open forum. “You can come to the next meeting,” McMillen said.

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.’

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 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 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. He said his financial situation and taxes are back on track. Ray said he underwent a background check when he joined the Center Police Department two years ago as a reserve officer.