Will the end of chief drama restore civility in city boardroom?

Published 8:36 am Sunday, March 17, 2024

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to show alderman James Magee was not present for the vote on police chief due to work obligations. 

I’m not upset about the outcome of the recent vote to go from an elected chief to appointed chief. In the grand scheme of things, who the police chief is or how they become the chief does not really affect me. I live out in the county so I couldn’t vote for the police chief anyway, and for the most part, I seldom have to speak with the police chief for stories.

What should be upsetting about this whole saga is the way it unfolded and the lack of decorum in our city meetings. Readers may recall pictures of Brookhaven Police Chief Kenny Collins getting into a shouting match with Brookhaven Alderman at Large Don Underwood in April 2023. Underwood got a motion passed to make the police chief of Brookhaven to be appointed rather than elected. Three aldermen abstained from the vote. Those aldermen were James Magee Jr., Ward 1; Shannon Moore, Ward 2; and Charles Caston, Ward 3. Alderman Fletcher Grice voted against the motion.

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A few months later, aldermen voted to make the police chief elected again. Grice, Moore, Caston and Magee voted in favor of having an elected chief. Jeff Henning, Andre Spiller and Don Underwood voted against the motion.

Tuesday night’s vote seemed to come out of the blue but make no mistake, it was not a surprise to the men who voted in favor of the motion. I’m not suggesting there is anything nefarious going on or that these aldermen are meeting outside of the board room but Underwood was looking for an opportunity. His vendetta against Collins is a personal one and one which deteriorates the decorum of city meetings.

Underwood’s opportunity came when he instigated a squabble with Collins Tuesday night. It is not the first time for Underwood or his counterparts Henning or Moore to instigate an argument in the boardroom with the chief.

Tuesday evening, Underwood accused Collins of lying that he sent his policies and procedures to the Mississippi Department of Public Safety. It sparked a personal attack by both sides. Collins had taken offense to the city giving him a pack of policies to review which said the position was appointed.

Collins told Underwood that Underwood had a problem with the police department. Underwood replied by saying “I have a problem with you, because you’re not doing your job.” Collins replied by saying Underwood is not doing his job as alderman. Sounds like discourse used on the playground in middle school.

Tempers seemed to cool off. The chief was finished with his report and he sat down.

Underwood then used his alderman’s report to bring up the police chief issue for a vote. Aldermen voted 3-3 with Cox casting a deciding vote for what he said was the first time in 10 years as mayor.

James Magee was not present for the vote as he had work obligations and was unable to phone in.

What bothers me as an outside viewer is this monumental decision was voted upon twice before and was brought up outside of the agenda for the third vote. It is a similar issue I’ve had with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Commissioners making rash decisions on managing Chronic Wasting Disease without input from biologists or the public, those motions often come without appearing in the business agenda.

It may be technically allowed but I’m not sure it was right.

At the same time, citizens have had months to voice opinions and provide public comment on the issue. Politicians are not always guaranteed to listen to public comment but I’m sure it helps.

I’m not naive enough to believe this is a simple political issue. It is an evident personal issue and one which turns the boardroom into a circus when things get heated.

I’m not a police officer, I’ve never worked with Kenny Collins nor do I typically report on beats involving Collins. However, every interaction I’ve ever had with him has been positive. He came across as friendly, you could tell he is passionate about Brookhaven and wants to keep this community safe.

Underwood’s conduct in public meetings is unbecoming of an elected official and an insult to the decorum one expects to find in governmental proceedings. There are ways to address perceived issues with the police department without making things personal or making a snide remark like “That’s what them women say,” as Underwood did Tuesday night.

Yes, Collins has responded at times with the same lack of decorum. His actions can be justified as a defense against Underwood’s attacks. Even after the vote, Collins told Underwood “I’m not going to play your childish games. Grow up.”

Underwood reminded the aldermen their last day of term is 15 months away Tuesday. For the sake of city meetings maintaining their decorum and to stop being a circus, I hope Collins isn’t the only one not returning to office by then. Or maybe the end of the saga will allow everyone to grow up and stop acting so childish.