Declaring that he hopes “this council has the guts to clean up this mess,” the acting mayor of Newport blamed the city’s elected leaders for problems in the police department Thursday night as the City Council unanimously moved to order an outside investigation.
A scathing report from the Washington County sheriff over lost evidence, neglected cases and other problems “is yet another sign of what’s been going on in the cop shop for a long time,” acting Mayor Tom Ingemann said. “No one who’s seen the signs did anything about it. It’s a total lack of leadership that starts at the top with the City Council.”
Council Member Tracy Rahm, while asserting that proper oversight by the city’s own administration “would have uncovered every single issue,” added that “I expect more from all of us, council, staff, officers — and we all have a black eye. … I am deeply, truly sorry.”
An emotional evening, including strong words from citizens, was triggered by a report from Sheriff Bill Hutton disclosing that an inspection of the police evidence room revealed that 14 confiscated weapons were missing, sexual assault test results were contaminated and property relating to 1,138 cases wasn’t tracked.
“The management of the property room did not exist,” Hutton said Wednesday.
Sheriff’s officials had descended on the department after staff departures led to a request for the county to step in and lead the agency at least for a period of time while the City Council pondered its options.
The mess has stalled, perhaps for months, a quest to reach out to other departments for cooperative relationships that could not only cure the defects but also result in a drop in costs in what is among Washington County’s most expensive police agencies on a per-capita basis.
Said Rahm, of potential partners such as neighboring Cottage Grove: “People don’t want to work with us until we investigate all this, and that pushes it all out till I don’t know when.”
Citizens’ comments revealed deep divisions within the larger community.
Pauline Schottmuller, who was formerly on the council, criticized the sheriff for “disgraceful mud-throwing — so totally unhelpful, it makes Newport look rinky-dink.”
But resident Paul Hansen replied, “I have all the faith and confidence in Sheriff Hutton; we need his department’s direction and guidance.”
City Administrator Deb Hill said the staff has been taking steps to solve the problems — for instance, by buying lockers to help keep sensitive evidence secure and moving to get rid of mold.
“Mold is very unhealthy,” she said.
“We’ve also had the county’s people look at our record room, which is in total disarray,” she said.
Washington County had been put in temporary charge until the end of the year, but that arrangement now looks likely to extend into 2016.
Rahm vowed to keep much closer watch over the city’s operations in general.
“This is my second term and I take my share of responsibility,” he said. “I think we can all do much better jobs. I plan to take a more active role in reviewing core city activities until such time as I can be more personally assured of proper management.
“I don’t want to micromanage but we need to be reasonably prudent.”