Mayor Robbie Skinner at council's Jan. 7, 2021 council meeting.

City attorney to assist police department in attaining accreditation; council nixes part-time police officer position

BUCKHANNON – Buckhannon City Council voted to add two new people – one probationary police officer and one attorney – to the Buckhannon Police Department’s ranks at council’s meeting earlier this month.

One will be enforcing the law and the other will review the police department’s policies and procedures for law enforcement.

At its Jan. 7 meeting, council unanimously approved the hiring of Jacob Garrison, who will serve as a full-time probationary police officer, pending passage of a background check and standard psychological and medical evaluations. Council also approved assigning city attorney Tom O’Neill the additional task of assisting the police department in its efforts to attain accreditation through CALEA, or the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

If the BPD earns the accreditation following an on-site evaluation tentatively slated for this summer, it would be only the second law enforcement agency to earn the prestigious distinction in West Virginia, aside from the Parkersburg Police Department.

Mayor Robbie Skinner said part-time city police officer Tanner Collins, who has another full-time job, resigned from his position because of increased family responsibilities. Skinner suggested transferring the $20,000 the city had been paying Collins to a line item that would compensate O’Neill for assisting with the CALEA accreditation process.

“Those funds that were allocated for a part-time police officer, Chief Gregory and Lieutenant Loudin believe, as well as Amby [finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins] that it would make sense to reallocate those funds,” Skinner explained. “We’re not adding anything, we’re just changing from one bucket to another. We’re putting those funds toward Tom O’Neill, who has agreed to step up and take some additional responsibility in addition to what he does here for us at city hall.”

CALEA accreditation isn’t a one-time achievement but instead a continuous process, Skinner said.

“Once you get it, it’s not like you just stick it on the shelf and it’s over,” he said. “It continues to be a living book of many documents.”

The mayor said O’Neill’s additional responsibilities wouldn’t cut into the time he spends working in his official capacity as city attorney – and that having someone well-versed in West Virginia legal code would benefit the BPD greatly.

“He’s a good fit for this,” the mayor said. “Having an attorney working on the accreditation process would be positive for our police organization as well as our organization here at city hall.”

Councilman CJ Rylands had a few questions, including whether O’Neill would work on a salaried or hourly basis and how much time O’Neill would be expected to dedicate to the police department.

Following the meeting, in an email to My Buckhannon last week, finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins estimated O’Neill puts in about 1,560 in his current post, and city officials expect him to work about 520 additional hours for the BPD, bringing his total hours up to 2,080 per year.

Councilman David Thomas said he would have liked more time to mull over the decision.

“When the idea of accreditation was put forth, council did not OK having someone dedicated to CALEA who was paid $20,000, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to bring it up this evening without us having an opportunity to really analyze the consequences with respect to the amount of hours that’s going to be required for this,” Thomas said. “I don’t feel comfortable [making a decision about this] the first time we hear about.”

Thomas suggested tabling the issue until council could conduct a more “definitive analysis.”

“It’s nothing questioning Tom’s ability to do this, but also when you’re taking a look at the compensation that he’s making, if you add another $20 grand on it, it’s going to detract some from what his normal responsibilities,” Thomas remarked.

Rylands said he wasn’t opposed to making a decision that evening, “but our decision is only as good as the information that we’re basing it on, so I’m just asking for some clarification.”

However, city recorder Randy Sanders said having attorney involved in the CALEA accreditation process would be beneficial.

“I think it would be a plus to have someone with Tom’s training from the legal side of things … and human resources to be able to have a set of eyes on the document [that the police department will continually be updating] for CALEA,” Sanders said. “I’m not uncomfortable with this from the standpoint that we’re not adding funds, we’re reallocating funds, and the chief (BPD Chief Matt Gregory) is comfortable with this.”

Rylands asked if the position would be permanent.

“Is this going to be perpetual as long as we’re seeking to remain CALEA-accredited?” he asked. “It is our fiduciary responsibility [to ask questions].”

Turning to Lt. Doug Loudin, who attended to Jan. 7 meeting on Gregory’s behalf, Rylands asked, “Now, we’re reallocating this this $20,000 was for a (part-time) patrolman who is no longer patrolling, so are you going to come back to us and say we need another part-time officer to fill in for the lost hours of patrolling?”

Loudin said no.
“Basically, we’re still undermanned by one officer, but that would be a full-time officer,” Loudin said. “It just makes sense to do away with the part-time police officer position and ask Tom O’Neill to assist with the CALEA process because even though we’re in the process of getting accredited, every time they have a conference, there’s changes regarding the policies. He would just be able to scrutinize the policy changes and make sure we’re coming into compliance.”

Councilman Jack Reger said he thought O’Neill was highly qualified and could “augment what the city is trying to accomplish through CALEA.”

Reger made a motion to reallocate the part-time police officer’s salary of $20,000 annually to O’Neill to assist with CALEA, and Sanders seconded the motion. The motion passed 3-1, with Reger, Rylands and Sanders voting for it and Thomas voting against the motion.

City councilwomen Mary Albaugh and Pam Bucklew were absent from the Jan. 7 meeting for medical reasons.

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