Call for Discipline in Aberdeen

July 26, 1993

The decision to suspend Aberdeen's police chief, John R. Jolley, and dock his pay for improperly using city funds and illegally voiding traffic and parking tickets represents minimum punishment for his misdeeds, or "poor judgment."

Under a strong, confident city government, the chief would likely have been dismissed, even though a thorough state investigation found insufficient grounds to bring criminal charges against him. But stable government has not existed in the year since Aberdeen elected its first mayor and council under a new charter. The political, personal strain between mayor and council has repeatedly stalled personnel decisions.

The new charter seems unclear about who can fire a department head, and there is no agreement on a common course. Given that impasse, city administrator Peter Dacey was told to determine punishment for Mr. Jolley. The result is a weak penalty, understandable from Mr. Dacey's position, that sends a wrong message and sets a bad precedent for dealing with future municipal wrongdoing.

Mayor Ruth Elliott, who initiated the inquiry into Chief Jolley's suspect activities, rightly asserts that the city's hands may be tied in future cases because of this limited discipline. She wanted his resignation, but was overruled by a hostile council, which had earlier tried to brush off her allegations of improprieties by the chief.

However, instead of making further political capital of the issue, and hinting that the mayor can veto Mr. Dacey's actions, Mrs. Elliott should take this opportunity to seize the high moral ground.

She should challenge the four councilmen to use this civic embarrassment as the basis for resolving the ambiguity about authority over city department heads. Both sides share the blame. Mrs. Elliott was right in pressing the investigation, although she tried to use the case to bolster her personal mayoral powers. The council has been unable to act, except in reaction to the mayor's decisions, and so passed the buck to Mr. Dacey.

The police union, at odds with Mr. Jolley over other issues, also called his punishment a slap on the wrist. His authority over police staff clearly eroded, Mr. Jolley's days as law enforcement chief may be numbered in any case.

Fortunately, the city has tightened internal financial controls, giving the city treasurer responsibility for police funds, and eliminating the discretionary police fund misused by Chief Jolley. A clear policy on vehicle ticket-voiding is to be developed.

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