GARLAND — Starting in January, the town’s annex building will serve as the headquarters for the police department — an action Mayor Winifred Murphy wanted commissioners to reconsider.
The decision was unanimously approved Monday night during a special meeting, after Mayor Pro-Tem Haywood Johnson made a motion to get the process started. It was backed by Commissioner Ralph Smith. The office space near Rotary Park, is currently the meeting place for Garland Community Action Committee and other groups such as the Volunteer Softball League. It was also selected as the area’s Visitor Center.
Police Chief Ronald Matthews is currently working inside an office at town hall. Commissioners believe it’ll provide more working space and increase visibility. Murphy questioned why the decision was so urgent.
“You wanted a police department,” Commissioner Lee Carberry said. “You have a police office right now. He’s got no room to grow.”
Carberry added that Matthews does not have room for work such as talking to witnesses. Other concerns involved security, space for evidence and other regulations regarding law enforcement procedures such as installing a system to link with other agencies.
“There’s no security there, plus North Carolina (state officials) says that he can not get the systems that he needs to link with the sheriff’s department because that’s not a secure room,” Carberry said.
But Murphy said that’s something that needs to be investigated before a decision was made. She argued that the police chief has been with the town for less than six months. Matthews was hired after commissioners made a decision to start a police department after a contract with the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office ended because of financial reasons. Bobby Kinlaw, former police chief of Elizabethtown, was hired to provide consultant services and assist with searching for a chief. At the time, there was a consensus that town hall would be OK.
“He looked a both buildings and said that this was the best place for him to be,” Murphy said. “I know that Kinlaw is out of the picture now, but still we need to further investigate and further research the needs for this.”
Based on conversations with state officials Murphy continued and implied that the building was impressive for a police unit with one person.
“I know that we plan to get auxiliary officers, but they have much larger police departments with smaller spaces,” Murphy said referring to other municipalities.
But Carberry emphasized that business owners would prefer the station to be seen in downtown to divert crime and speeding.
“Or we can just hide him back here and let him sit,” he said.
During the argument, Murphy said deputies from the sheriff’s department spent at least 12 hours a day providing law enforcement services.
“Now we don’t,” she said about the current service. “We might have him here three days a week or four days a week.”
Murphy also pointed out that grant money from North Carolina Small Town Economic Prosperity (NC STEP) went towards improving the building. The NC STEP program was developed by state officials to help towns facing economic hardships. Supplies and equipment used during community events is currently housed in the annex. After funding for NC STEP ended, Smith said there was an agreement that the items became town property. He later suggested that the Action Committee should find their own place to meet and separate from the Town of Garland. Murphy had a difference of opinion and felt it would be pushing out a group of volunteers, who organize events. The committee was formed from NC STEP.
Murphy continued to voice her frustration with the idea of the chief having an office to himself and another one for deputies in the annex. She was also upset about community groups having to find another location.
“I’m not saying that the community events are more important than the police department,” Murphy said.”Law enforcement, safety of the citizens is very important.”
But she questioned why the matter was on the table in the middle of the fiscal year, which began July 1. She said there were discussions of waiting until the beginning of a new fiscal year for considerations.
“We’ve already made financial commitments for this space and now you’re going to spend more money on getting (the annex building) up to standards for the police department,” she said. “Have you checked to see if the money is there — to see if we have enough money to support having his own equipment, security, changing the doors, changing the locks?”
During the meeting, Murphy said she felt that the decision was personal and retaliation for winning the recent election. Commissioners Ralph Smith and Johnson also ran for the mayoral seat. During a private conservation, Murphy claimed that Ralph said he was “still in control.” Smith denied the accusation and said it was a lie.
Before the final vote, Carberry said Sheriff Jimmy Thornton would appreciate having a space for deputies and to build a bridge between the departments. When Murphy asked for alternatives for community groups, Commissioner S.J. Smith made a suggestion to use the old fire station building, which is connected to town hall.
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.