GARLAND — Friction between Mayor Winifred Murphy and Garland Police Chief Ron Matthews continued during Tuesday’s meeting for the town’s commissioners.
During the meeting, Murphy left her mayoral chair to speak as resident during the public comment portion of the gathering. She took action after a planned discussion about police department accountability and supervision was cut from the agenda.
“I’ve been told that I just don’t like the chief,” Murphy said. “For me, it’s not about the chief, rather an abuse of power and abuse of taxpayer’s dollars approved by certain commissioners.”
After the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office requested more money a few years ago, commissioners made a decision to start their own police department. With the assistance of a consultant, Matthews was selected to lead the department. In April, Murphy brought up concerns regarding the issues.
Since that time, Murphy said she has tried to remain silent about the matter because of negative publicity, but according to her, the concerns increased. One of them included document requests for auditing purposes. Another was the perception that other commissioners leading the town’s safety committee are being undermined by their colleagues on the board when it comes to accountability.
Commissioners Eddie Bronson Jr. and Austin Brown previously led the safety committee, which is now overseen by Commissioner Lee Carberry and Mayor Pro Tem Ralph Smith. Murphy made the switch because of the conflict. Murphy said she was assured that changes would be made, but told the public that more wasteful spending occurred on “luxury items.”
Along with spending and the approval process, Murphy also brought up mileage and gas matters, which she said is taking up a large part of the budget. She said calls are being answered outside a one-mile radius of Garland, but the chief is not present during town-sponsored events such as the Easter Egg hunt and the Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony. Murphy continued and said her voice, along with that other commissioners, are being dismissed by a couple of people when it comes to police finances and complaints.
“As mayor, I’ve taken a back seat,” she said. “As a citizen, I’ve taken a back seat on this. I know that I have no vote and I’m outnumbered to any concerns that are raised …”
She also mentioned financial problems and fraud issues of the past and having measures in place to avoid such issues.
“I’m not accusing anyone of doing any fraudulent activities — it’s just that we don’t have those mechanisms in place to prevent that,” Murphy said regarding the department.
Later during the meeting, commissioners discussed boundaries outside Garland’s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ), which brought up more debate regarding Matthews responding to calls and a mutual aid agreement with the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office. Matthews recently responded to a stabbing and homicide incident right outside of Garland. Matthews said he was first on the scene. While discussing the mutual aid agreement, Attorney Alan Maynard said those matters may be up to Matthews’ discretion.
“A reported potential murder right outside of town, I think that’s clearly an emergency,” Maynard said. “If something is happening 40 miles away, probably not.”
Maynard said he’ll research the mutual aid agreement with the Sheriff’s Office. While discussing the incident, Bronson, a former law officer, questioned how much time the chief should spend on the scene during an investigation handled by another agency. Smith said he should stay around as long as possible to assist other officers.
“I’m trained to work homicides and I’m trained to work CSI,” Matthews said. “I can tell you that once I took that scene, until I was relieved by a senior person, I was there. I was the only person to secure that scene.”
Under the safety and police department portion of the meeting, commissioners also discussed purchasing agreements, following a motion to spend more than $7,000 from the fund balance for purchases, which was not seconded.
Some of it included technology for closed-circuit television (CCTV), for surveillance and security purposes inside the police department. It was noted that portions of the system were already installed, but Murphy questioned why action was taken when the safety committee was asked to hold off. But Smith said the chief was told that he could make purchases if he needed something.
“You’re 100 percent for body cameras and car cameras, but one of the most important places the chief has to interview people, you don’t recommend a camera,” Smith said to Murphy. “I don’t understand that.”
When questioned about the interview process, Matthews said he tried to use the Sheriff’s Office, but the rooms are being used when needed.
“But now I do everything in-house,” Matthews said.
Bronson said the town was not set up to handle big-time cases and explained how incidents would be sent to the Sheriff’s Office anyway.
“We haven’t had one since you been here,” Bronson said.
Matthews said that he begged to differ and said evidence remains in Garland, including DNA.
“I don’t know what you call a big case, but I’ve done this most of my life and I’ve got DNA evidence at the lab right now,” he said. “I’m not sure why the Sheriff’s Office would have to use jurisdiction over here when it’s my casess.”
Bronson said he doesn’t believe that Matthews is holding DNA at his lab. Murphy continued to express her concerns about the CCTV purchase, made without an approval of board members.
“You’re making accusations, mayor, that are just baseless and false,” Matthews said.
Matthews said forms were assigned and approved and that the town does not have a written purchasing policy regarding matters. But Murphy said the process for the CCTV went over into another fiscal year. Another vote was made to postpone purchases to the next meeting.