FOP Seeks to Stop Cruiser Vote

WHEELING – Wheeling Fraternal Order of Police President Thomas Howard believes he has found a loophole that will put a stop to any public vote on the two officer per cruiser issue.

Howard told the Sunday News-Register that the FOP will seek an injunction in Ohio County Circuit Court to prevent any election on the cruiser issue. He said it is the FOP’s belief that the petitions presented last month to City Council were gathered illegally.

Howard pointed to Section 81 of the City Charter, which states that each petition should have attached to it “the affidavit of the circulator thereof stating that each signature was made in the circulator’s presence on the date specified …”

“This is an illegal petition – the signatures are invalid because they were not witnessed,” he said.

“I support the right of the people to get signatures for a petition, and support their right to vote. But this was just not handled properly,” he added.

But George Jones, who along with William Hefner coordinated the petition drive, said every signature was collected as directed by law.

“We had some (petitions) in the stores, but the folks working there signed on the bottom of every petition sheet” that they witnessed the signatures, Jones said. “I feel certain we followed all the rules and regulations set forth.”

The FOP’s stance against a vote on the two officer cruiser ordinance comes as Wheeling City Council is preparing to set a date for a special election on the issue. The law has been in place since 1972, and requires that all patrol cars have two police officers at all times.

Despite the FOP’s opposition, members of council are moving forward on the matter.

“It is our duty as a city council to see that this election goes forward,” Vice Mayor Eugene Fahey said, noting city law forces council to allow the election.

“People deserve to have the right to vote on this,” he added.

City Clerk Janice Jones recently certified the petition to council, noting a total of 2,469 registered Wheeling voters signed the petitions that Jones and Hefner presented.

That number of signatures eclipsed the 2,212 signature requirement to trigger a referendum vote. Janice Jones also noted that once she certifies the petition to council, she is “done with it.”

According to Section 17 of the City Charter, “If the petition be certified to council … council shall call for a special election, unless a general election is to be held within 90 days thereafter.”

But Howard believes the petition is invalid.

“There is no way all of those signatures were witnessed,” Howard said. He noted the petitions had been placed at various city businesses, as well as in the office of the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce.

Howard, noting that city leaders this year voted to eliminate three vacant positions from the police department, said he believes the city would most likely reduce its police force if the two officer per cruiser mandate is removed.

“The two-man car is a safety issue for the officers and the residents. It is also about jobs because if they go to one-man cars, they will cut officers,” Howard said of city leaders.

For fiscal 2010, Wheeling plans to spend $6.4 million on its police department. The department has positions for 82 officers in a city with an estimated 28,913 residents. This means the city has about 2.8 police officers for every 1,000 residents.

According to statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Justice, the average ratio of police officers per 1,000 residents for a city the size of Wheeling is 1.8. This means Wheeling has about 30 more police officers than most cities of comparable size throughout the nation.

Fahey said no police force reduction plans are in place.

“To my knowledge, there have been no discussions with this city council regarding a reduction in our police force in the event the two-officer ordinance is rescinded,” he said.

“The only way a reduction in our police force can occur is if city council makes cuts to the police department’s budget,” Fahey added. He stressed that City Manager Robert Herron and the soon-to-be-named police chief have no authority to reduce the number of officers in the department.

But Howard is not buying it.

“They told us before that they were not going to cut jobs, and what did they do? They cut 13 of them,” he said in reference to council’s elimination of 13 vacant positions as part of the fiscal 2010 budget process.

Councilwoman Gloria Delbrugge, who openly opposes removing the two officer per cruiser requirement, said ” Everyone has the right to vote” when asked about her position on the petition.

“I still support the two-man cruiser, and would never vote to cut our police department,” she said.

Mayor Andy McKenzie previously said “the people have spoken” when asked if members of council could, or would, attempt to stop the the measure from going to the voters.

In the event the FOP’s efforts to prevent the election are unsuccessful, Howard is confident that Wheeling voters will choose to keep the two-officer mandate in place.

Though Wheeling has a two officer per cruiser law, the Ohio County Sheriff’s Department, West Virginia State Police and numerous departments throughout the nation work with single officer cars. But Howard said those departments do not face the same volume of work.

“If people saw the volume of calls we get, and what we have to deal with in places like East Wheeling, they would know our situation is a lot different from what the sheriff’s department deals with,” he said.

Though he appreciates the police department’s efforts, Fahey said the city must follow the rules established in its code and charter.

“City Code says this is what we must do, and this is what we plan to do,” he said of holding the election.