By a 4-2 vote, Benld city aldermen chose during a brief special meeting Friday night to end the city’s decades-old police department and contract with the City of Gillespie for police protection services.
Due to COVID-19 precautions, the council met in the Benld Civic Center instead of council chambers so aldermen and city officials could maintain social distancing from one another. With six aldermen, mayor, city clerk and city attorney physically attending, the meeting was within one individual of the 10-person limit imposed on public gatherings by order of Gov. JB Pritzker. Several residents, however, attended the meeting via the Zoom video conferencing application or by telephone conference call.
Ald. Teressa Tucker, chair of the council’s Police Committee, moved to accept a contract approved earlier this week by the Gillespie City Council to provide 24/7 police patrol for the City of Benld at a cost of $18,000 per month. Ald. Jim Tilashalski seconded the motion. In addition to Tucker and Tilashalski, Ald. Lance Cooper and Ald. Mickey Robinson voted to accept the contract. Opposing votes were cast by Ald. Dustin Fletcher and Ald. Brian Frensko. The department’s fate was sealed in about 30 minutes.
Under terms of the contract, which takes effect May 1, the Gillespie Police Department is expected to protect 24/7 police patrol in the City of Benld. Either municipality can terminate the agreement after providing a one-year written notice after the second year of the contract. In the absence of a termination notice, the contract renews for a three-year period every third year. At the outset of the contract, the Benld Police Department will remain in operation through June 1 to assist with the transition.
The contract also contains provisions for Gillespie to raise the cost after the second year upon demonstrating increases in its cost of providing police protection. The cost to Benld is based upon the population of both municipalities, which means the current cost share is 30/70. In the event Gillespie offers a police protection contract to other municipalities in the future, the cost will be recalculated on the basis of the population in each of the participating municipalities.
After Monday night’s meeting of the Gillespie Council, the City of Gillespie is poised to hire three new officers upon the Mayor’s authority, purchase one additional squad car, and implement a reorganization to elevate a sergeant to the rank of lieutenant and create two new sergeant positions to fulfill terms of the five-year contract.
“I hate to say it but this is probably the best thing,” Police Chief Jim Zirkelbach told the council by phone. While the Police Department reportedly strained the city’s financial resources, Zirkelbach said the Department also suffered from an inability to attract candidates to fill vacancies on the police force. “Nobody is applying for positions,” he said. “That’s been our problem all along.”
Zirkelbach has the option to transfer to the City of Benld’s Maintenance Department but Ald. Dustin Fletcher said Friday night that Zirkelbach has not made a decision about his future. Benld’s remaining full-time officers presumably could apply to the Gillespie Police Department to be considered for employment.
Several residents urged the council to postpone action until after the COVID-19 emergency has passed, enabling residents to attend a meeting in person and voice their concerns and objections.
City Attorney Rick Verticchio noted that Gov. Pritzker had announced earlier Friday that public schools would remain closed through the end of the academic year. “With the Governor’s announcement today,” he said, “I wouldn’t count on a meeting the public could attend any time soon.”
Ken Snider, owner of the No. 5 Mine winery, voiced skepticism about the timing of Friday night’s meeting and urged the council to turn down the contract.
“This is certainly a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” Snider said via Zoom. After the city first floated the idea of disbanding the police department two years ago for financial considerations, Snider said independent reviews of the city’s finances “determined there was money available for a police department.” He was especially critical of the city’s decision to declare a public safety emergency in order to convene a special meeting during the COVID-19 pandemic to act on the issue.
“I don’t believe it is a public safety emergency,” Snider said. “I think this is the beginning of another ‘end’ for Benld. I think this is the wrong direction to be taking the community.”
Snider also suggested Benld residents will have no voice in managing police services provided to the city.
“As a business owner, I can go the Chief of Police or the Mayor in Gillespie and they aren’t going to care who I am,” he said. “We are going to be policed by people who are completely unaccountable to the people of Benld.”
Additionally, Snider noted that while several aldermen have been adamant about enforcing municipal ordinances, an ordinance officer is not a part of the new contract with Gillespie. A proposal presented to Benld last year included provisions for an officer dedicated to ordinance enforcement. Snider also criticized taking action to disband the police force when the Mayor and several aldermen have indicated they will not seek re-election next spring.
“Why would you encumber a future mayor and council with such a permanent decision?” he asked. “I think this is just a terrible thing for the town.”
Responding to Snider’s criticism of making a momentous decision in a meeting residents could not physically attend, City Attorney Rick Verticchio said it would be “illegal to have more than 10 people in this room.”
“I believe that was by design,” Snider countered, alleging the council orchestrated a meeting few residents knew about in advance.
City Clerk Terri Koyne said the city complied with its legal obligation by posting notice of the meeting on the door at city hall. She said no notice was published in the local newspaper, in part because most residents would not receive the newspaper in the mail until the day after the meeting.
“Just because you followed the statute doesn’t make it right,” said former Ald. Peyton Bernot, also attending via Zoom.
Bernot said city officials should not give up on attracting recruits to fill vacant positions without having advertised those vacancies online. Koyne said notices of vacancies were published locally and sent to the state’s Police Officer Academy.
“People don’t look in the newspaper for jobs anymore,” Bernot said. “They go online to find jobs.” The city should post vacancies on Indeed.com, LinkedIn.com and other popular employment websites to attract recruits from a wider area. “In this technological age, I don’t see why Benld hasn’t advertised online.” He urged aldermen to delay a decision until after at least trying to recruit online.
“You cannot put a price on pride and independence,” Bernot told the council. “No matter how much money you may save from subcontracting police services to a neighboring municipality, Benld will ultimately lose the pride in having the Benld police department and lose the independence in setting the agenda and objectives of the police force. So I ask those who believe that there may be a sliver of hope in filling the two open positions within six to 12 months in addition to working vigorously in recruitment and posting the position online, to vote ‘no’.”
Bernot also questioned whether or the council would consider reducing local property taxes to reflect the savings the city realizes from outsourcing police services.
Grant Plovich, attending by Zoom, also urged postponing the decision, suggesting that recent incidents of vandalism probably would have occurred whether or not Benld had 24-hour patrols.
“Can we just wait until the pandemic is over?” Plovich asked. “Let’s just chill out for a minute. The car wash got vandalized the other night. That would have happened even if we had 50 police officers.”
Ald. Fletcher, who ultimately voted against the contract, argued against delaying the decision. He said the Benld Department is down to two full-time officers who are working long hours of overtime to fill shifts. Additionally, the city has relied on Gillespie and Mount Olive to provide officers temporarily to patrol the city. Additionally, the city has reduced the number of patrols to cope with the personnel shortage, leaving the city with periods without police protection.
“How long can we kick this can down the road?” he asked.
In addition to voting on the police contract, city aldermen voted unanimously to pay the city’s current bills and voted unanimously to cancel the council’s regular monthly meeting which would have taken place Monday night.