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DEMOREST, GA.- You’ve got to love small town politics. Fired over garbage cans? That pretty much covers it.
In a small city in Georgia, a police chief has been terminated for failing to discipline an employee. His transgression? An officer made disparaging remarks about the city’s new trash cans.
The chief was asked to write up the employee, he said the officer’s comments were protected speech under the First Amendment, and he was fired.
Sounds reasonable…not so much.
Now Habersham is reporting that now former police chief of the Demorest (GA) Police Department, Robin Krockum had been at the helm of the department for three years.
The agency has been one of the top-rated departments in Georgia for the past few years, yet the city manager decided to fire Krockum last Thursday over an alleged disciplinary dispute.
Here are all of the details.
The city apparently made a recent purchase of new trash cans. A police officer questioned the purchase of the cans in a Facebook post, saying:
“When did the citizens of Demorest vote on getting new trash cans? Guess we better start watching our water bills and start looking for the maintenance fee that will most likely be tacked on to it to reimburse the $7000 they spent on those trash cans.”
Well apparently, that got city manager Kim Simonds’ dander up, and she sent an email to Chief Krockum. The email read:
“Negative comments about the City of Demorest posted on social media by employees will not be tolerated.”
She then asked Krockum to fill out a disciplinary file for the officer’s personnel file.
Krockum told her that he disagreed with how the officer handled the situation, however he would decline to write the officer up due to case law that protects government employees’ free speech.
An exchange of emails then took place, along with a face-to-face visit. On Thursday afternoon, Simonds went to the police department and fired Krockum.
— Now Habersham (@nowhabersham) April 17, 2020
Within hours of the firing, former police chief Greg Ellingson was hired and sworn in to replace Krockum, who succeeded him as chief in 2016.
Now Habersham reports however that it is unclear whether Simonds had the authority to even hire Ellingson.
According to the city charter, department directors are supposed to be nominated by the city manager and then confirmed by the city council. I
t looks like in this case that nobody on the city council appears to have been notified and no formal meeting was held, which could possibly render the appointment of Ellingson as null and void.
“I had a call from the city council at Demorest asking me to come swear him [Ellingson] in,” said Habersham County Probate Court Judge Pam Wooley said.
She said that city councilman Nathan Davis had called her.
Some questioned whether Wooley was acting within her authority to swear in Ellingson, however the city’s attorney, Joey Homans said that she did not act improperly.
“The Probate Judge (or any officer swearing a city official) merely provides the oath the city official undertakes and does not have a duty to investigate before providing the oath, but certainly may do so if he or she chooses,” Homans said.
Oaths are typically administered during city council meetings; however, the current coronavirus pandemic has rendered public meetings moot. This further called into question the timing of the personnel changes.
On March 31, Simonds and a city councilman tried to push through with a meeting regarding the merging of the fire department with the county’s Emergency Services, which was against the mayor’s request. That meeting ended up getting canceled.
Speaking to Krockum’s firing, the mayor of the town, Rick Austin said, “She told Robin to write him up. Robin stood up for the officer’s Constitutional rights.” Austin noted that the firing came as a shock to both him, as well as Chief Krockum.
Austin said that Simonds “appeared extraordinarily nervous” and said, “I need to keep my job” as she fired the chief.
It seems like maybe Simonds got her marching orders from somewhere else, the city council perhaps?
Speaking to the appointment of Ellingson, Austin said that he only found out about the hiring when he was being tipped off that Ellingson was being sworn in.
“There’s no way you pull that together so quickly,” said the mayor. “It’s like this was pre-planned or choreographed.”
The Demorest city charter gives the city manager the authority to remove department heads, however Krockum noted that “I still don’t even know why I’ve been fired.”
Simonds has not as of yet given him a formal separation notice, which is required before the appeals process can begin; Krockum has said that he will appeal the decision.
Austin has apparently been at loggerheads with the mayor as well as two city councilmen for months of a plan to dissolve the Demorest Fire Department. He said:
“The people need to know that this is the first official act of the dismantling of public safety in the City of Demorest. They took out a shining star.”
Krockum was appointed in 2016 after Ellingson was not reappointed by the former city council, after having served the city for 26 years.
Prior to becoming the chief in Demorest, Chief Krockum worked with the Alto Police Department and Habersham County Sheriff’s Office.
Since his appointment, the department has won first place in the small police department category of the Governor’s Challenge Awards three years running. The program recognizes law enforcement agencies and officers from around the state of Georgia.
Supporters of the chief, who holds a master’s degree in criminal justice, noted that he has saved the city money by securing tens-of-thousands of dollars in grant money for the department annually.
City Councilman Sean Moore said Krockum was a “stellar” employee who had no disciplinary record on file.
“If there was something Robin had done, that’s fine, bring it forward and let’s discuss it.”
“If they’re doing a good job why do you get rid of them? ‘Hey, you’re doing a good job. Number one in the state. You’re fired.’ That makes zero sense to me,” said an exasperated Moore. “I’m sure a lot of other departments would love to have him and are standing in line.”
Moore, who noted that he also disapproved of how the previous council hired the Ellingson firing in 2016, said he is concerned about the precedent this termination is setting.
“If they can do that [fire without cause or council’s approval] it’s like a dictatorship. They can fire Bryan [Popham-Demorest Public Works Director], they can fire the fire chief. Hell, they can fire everybody!”
Krockum’s support goes far beyond politics. The public has been incredibly supportive of the former chief since news of his firing came out. Social media campaigns have been launched with hashtags such as #keepkrockum and a campaign called “Support Chief Krockum.” The campaign logos have also been posted on residents’ city-owned trash cans.
The community support was not lost on Krockum:
“I want to thank the citizens of Demorest and the community for their overwhelming support. I don’t regret my decision and would make the same decision again,” he said, regarding standing up for his officer.
“To be an effective leader the people that work with you need to know that they can trust you. I have to balance the interests of the city, while at the same time protecting the rights of my officers.”
In an official statement issued to local media last Thursday, Krockum said:
“It has been my honor to serve the citizens of Demorest for the past four years. I’m proud of all the progress that we have made during this time. The men and women there are some of the finest I have ever worked with.”
While Chief Krockum’s comments were measured, the mayor was not quite as diplomatic:
“It’s the biggest injustice and the citizens of Demorest should be outraged at the way government is being conducted.” Austin promise to challenge the firing “with gusto.”
Moore noted, “We need to have some dialogue about why this is happening. It’s like the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Former city council member Florence Wikle agrees and says she was shocked by what happened.
“They timed it perfectly when people couldn’t come and protest. That’s the hard part,” she says, “the deviousness of it.”
Moore finished, “If nothing else it makes the city look like a bunch of morons.”
Touché, councilman Moore…Touché.
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