Council Wants Voters To Decide Cruiser Rule

WHEELING – Almost three years after a petition drive to repeal the law died in an Ohio County courtroom, City Council plans next week to resurrect debate over a 40-year-old ordinance requiring that two police officers ride in every patrol car.

Council is set to hear the first reading of legislation calling for a citywide referendum on the law at their next meeting, slated for noon Tuesday in the second-floor courtroom at the City-County Building, 1500 Chapline St. A vote on the ordinance would then take place at council’s Aug. 21 meeting, in plenty of time to meet Ohio County’s Aug. 28 deadline to put an issue on the ballot for the Nov. 6 general election, according to City Manager Robert Herron.

If council decides to put the measure on the ballot, it would take a simple majority of voters to repeal the law, which residents voted into effect in 1972.

Herron said the move is intended to increase the police department’s visibility and allow new Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger to cover more territory with patrols.

No reduction of Wheeling’s 85-officer police force is being considered, Herron stressed.

“We’d like to increase the exposure we have in the community,” he said. “We do have an excellent police department, and I think the new chief with that flexibility can do a lot more than what we’re currently doing, making an already safe city even safer.”

Schwertfeger said the issue is one that fascinates him, coming from a police department in Albemarle County, Va., that covers more than 700 square miles and assigns one officer to each cruiser.

He said he did not push for this to come before council, although he supports repealing the 1972 ordinance.

He said that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s for or against putting two officers in a patrol car, however.

“What I advocate for is to allow me … to decide how to deploy resources,” he said.

Schwertfeger said situations may arise that warrant assigning two officers to a cruiser, but lifting the requirement will allow him to create specialized units to deal with traffic safety and parking issues that can frustrate residents.

“It’s not necessary to have two people to take a vandalism report. … We have to put two men in a car to enforce a red light? That’s not efficient,” Schwertfeger said.

Mayor Andy McKenzie said he also supports eliminating the two-officer requirement. He echoed Herron’s and Schwertfeger’s comments concerning flexibility, and called Wheeling “the only city with the two-man cruiser policy.”

“Additionally, by adding this item to the election ballot, there will be no cost to taxpayers,” McKenzie said. “Holding a separate special election would cost the city thousands of dollars.”

A call to the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 38 in South Wheeling seeking comment was not returned Friday.

According to Wheeling’s city charter, because the ordinance was enacted by a vote of the people, it requires the same to repeal it. Voters nearly had the chance to decide the issue a few years ago.

In 2009, city residents George Jones and William Hefner conducted a petition drive seeking to force City Council to hold an election on the issue.

Jones still lives in Wheeling, while Hefner since has moved away.

The pair collected 2,469 signatures from residents in support of having the cruiser ordinance put to a vote, eclipsing the required total of 10 percent of all registered voters in Wheeling – at that time, 2,212. Despite divided sentiments on the issue, council in August 2009 was prepared to hold the election which apparently was required.

The city then sued to delay that vote until the May 2010 primary election, arguing that a special election – costing up to $100,000 – would be an unjustifiable burden on taxpayers. Hefner and Jones had no objection to delaying the vote, but the city charter requires that an election be held within 90 days of certifying the petition.

But the election never happened.

In September 2009, the FOP filed suit to have the petition declared invalid, claiming that proper procedures weren’t followed in obtaining the signatures and even accused Hefner and Jones of forging some of the signatures.

Circuit Judge Arthur Recht ultimately threw out the petitions, ruling in November 2009 that Hefner’s and Jones’ signatures on each of the petition pages were not sufficient to satisfy the city charter’s requirement that an “affidavit” attesting that each and every signature submitted was made in the circulator’s presence.