Hessmer chief fires back on Verizon bill, radar purchases

Hessmer’s “war of words” between its police chief and the mayor and aldermen continues.

Police Chief Kenneth Smith submitted a written statement to the newspaper in response to last week’s article on issues in the dispute with Town Hall.

“First, the mayor says that state law requires contracts to be approved by the council/mayor,” Smith wrote. “This does NOT apply to ELECTED chiefs of police and their phone services and the mayor knows it.”

Smith claims Mayor Travis Franks “thinks he is above the law. He is not.” He said Franks “is snubbing his nose at our judges and attorney general.”

Smith said Verizon does not agree with the mayor and Town Council position that the contract for phone services is not valid. He said the phone company does agree that the mayor and council did not enter into the contract for the police department.

VERIZON MAY ‘CAVE’

Smith said Verizon may “cave” on the issue to avoid legal costs to collect a $2,500 phone bill but “not because the mayor is correct.” He said the newspaper article was “misleading to the residents of Hessmer.”

Smith said he never said the village spent $19,000 to contest the Verizon bill.

“The village budget showed approximately $19,000 for ‘legal services,’” Smith wrote. “Nobody ever said that was all for the Verizon bill.”

In the June 30 Sunday Journal, a letter to the editor from Smith said, “My fellow residents, the issue is much simpler than the mayor and council want you to know: pay a $2,500 phone bill and quit trying to illegally control the elected police chief. Or pay an attorney another $19,000 this year to fight the small phone bill.”

Franks has interpreted the comment as a claim that the village has already spent $19,000 in legal fees on the Verizon issue because of the use of the term “another $19,000.”

Smith said he was referring to the $19,000 line item in the budget for legal costs and was not saying the village had spent that entire amount on the Verizon issue. That budget item includes engineering services and the cost of the annual audit in addition to costs for town attorney and magistrate for the past budget year.

In his written statement, Smith asks that Franks “tell us who is paying to represent you personally and the council personally for your being sued personally by Jordon Santoyo? Surely you are not dipping into village funds at residents’ expense to pay YOUR legal bills?”

Since the chief asked the question, the newspaper allowed Franks to answer it.

Franks said he and the aldermen have not employed private attorneys nor is the Village of Hessmer liable for paying the legal costs of defending against Santoyo’s claim that he was unlawfully fired as a police officer.

That cost -- should it go to trial -- would be borne by the municipality’s insurance carrier under its “errors and omissions” insurance coverage required by state law. In addition, the plaintiffs are asking the court to order that Santoyo is responsible for paying all legal fees because the suit was filed in “bad faith” with no legal cause of action.

RADAR ISSUE

In closing his rebuttal statement, Smith said the photo included with the article was for radar equipment “purchased without my approval. Reminder to the mayor, I am the ELECTED chief of police.

“Prior to that order by the mayor, I specifically told the mayor that I was in the process of getting radars,” he said. “I did get two radars, free of charge -- at no cost to our residents,” Smith added.

The council purchased a radar and a radar mount after the officials said they received no word from Smith on his efforts to obtain radars after he was given authority in May to obtain price quotes and bring those back to the council to approve the purchase.

Smith notes in his statement that he was “given authority to acquire radars in May. I did so, but at no cost to the Hessmer residents.”

The comments from the two elected leaders deviated from the issues briefly to engage in some more personal comments.

“Mayor, quit misleading the public with lies and half-truths,” Smith wrote. “Your actions and statements are despicable.”

“The problems with the police department, including the issue with Santoyo, are due to a lack of leadership in that department,” Franks said.

“Santoyo is the third employee in that department under Chief Smith that has filed suit against the town in an attempt to get money from the town,” the mayor continued. “I believe the chief sicced those employees on us.”

In his written statement, Smith made three references to his being the elected police chief.

Whether Hessmer should continue to have an elected police chief or join the majority of Avoyelles municipalities and change it to an appointed position is another issue that has worsened the relations between the mayor/aldermen and Smith.

The Village Council has adopted an ordinance that would allow it to call an election to consider making the police chief position an appointed department head when Smith’s current term ends Dec. 31, 2020. The issue has not been discussed since the enabling ordinance was adopted on April 1.

Most members of the standing-room-only crowd at that meeting were opposed to changing the elected police chief to one appointed by the mayor with council approval.

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