WHEELING - Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger may retain the authority Wheeling voters granted him last year to deploy officers as he sees fit, Circuit Judge Ronald Wilson ruled Monday.
Wilson's order dismissing a Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 38 lawsuit upholds the nearly two-to-one vote that repealed a 1972 law requiring two officers inside each patrol cruiser. The FOP contended the Aug. 7 City Council meeting during which legislation was introduced placing the matter on the November ballot was held in violation of Wheeling's charter, and anything arising from that meeting should be declared invalid.
Lodge members asserted the meeting should have been treated as a "special" meeting because it took place at noon, not 7 p.m. as was required by ordinance at that time, and did not comply with more stringent public notice requirements for "special" meetings outlined in the charter.
The city since has changed the law and now holds meetings alternating between noon and 5:30 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of each month.
In his five-page order granting the city's motion for summary judgment, Wilson said he initially was inclined to agree with the FOP's labeling of the Aug. 7 gathering as a special meeting.
But he said he was swayed by several factors, including Mayor Andy McKenzie's announcement of the impending time change during a meeting in July, a legal notice of the change published in the July 31 editions of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, sworn statements from Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger and City Manager Robert Herron indicating they personally told FOP President Thomas Howard that the matter was going to be before council as well as the presence of multiple police officers in the gallery during the meeting.
The Aug. 7 meeting "was not a clandestine meeting," Wilson wrote. "In fact, just the opposite is true."
Wilson further stated the city "did everything humanely possible" to alert the public of the meeting time.
"The city acted in a responsible manner to accomplish that goal. The city did nothing wrong," he wrote.
Howard said late Monday he had not heard from the lodge's attorney, Stephen Herndon, regarding the ruling and could not yet comment on it.
Residents on Nov. 6 overwhelmingly voted to repeal the law, by a margin of 6,773 votes to 3,905. Following the election, Schwertfeger implemented new procedures under which patrol officers ride solo, but multiple units are required to respond to more serious calls.
He recently told a neighborhood watch group that officer activity has increased by about 40 percent since those protocols went into effect in early January. City Council also has voted to purchase four additional cruisers to relieve added strain on the current fleet resulting from officers logging more miles.