Justice visits Pocomoke City to vet impropriety allegations
A month after a black police chief was fired amid allegations of racism, Justice Department officials traveled to Pocomoke City, Md., to meet with local leaders about the chief’s termination.
Justice representatives also talked with residents last week about two other issues roiling the community: accusations that a 2011 federal police grant was misused and alleged irregularities ina recent city council election.
“We are looking at the chief’s termination,” Charles Phillips, a mediator for the department’s community relations service, told dozens of residents Wednesday night at New Macedonia Baptist Church, according to a video recorded by the Real News Network. “We are looking at some of the other issues— voter irregularities — that were mentioned.”
Pocomoke, a community of 4,000 that bills itself as “The Friendliest Town on the Eastern Shore,” has been divided since the majority-white city council fired Kelvin Sewell, the town’s first black police chief.
In a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission, Sewell alleged that he was ousted because he refused to dismiss two black officers who complained about working in a racially hostile environment. On Friday evening, Sewell’s mostly African Americans upporters held a rally and called for the resignation of Pocomoke City Mayor Bruce Morrison.
Morrison and the Pocomoke City Council have not offered an explanation for the decision to fire Sewell, 52, who took over the 15officer department in 2010 after retiring from the Baltimore City police.
“That is a personnel matter,” said Pocomoke City Attorney William Hudson. “I cannot comment on it.”
In his EEOC complaint, Sewell said that he was told by the mayor that he was fired for “incompetence,” despite a significant drop in crime in Pocomoke City during his tenure.
Last week, during the community meeting with Justice Department representatives, residents demanded that Sewell be reinstated to the position now occupied by Maryland State Police Lt. Earl W. Starner. Starner was appointed by the mayor July 6 to serve as interim police chief.
Residents at the meeting also raised concerns about other issues that they said show a pattern of abuse of power by city leaders. Those issues included the alleged misuse of a $212,000 DOJ grant designated for new police hiring and the cancellation of a recent municipal election.
The controversy over the community policing grant may have played a role in the city’s decision to fire Sewell, said City Council member Diane Downing, the only African American on the council and the only member to vote against getting rid of the chief.
At a closed-door meeting with city officials three days before he was terminated, Sewell was asked whether he’d gone to the Justice Department with questions about the way the grant money was used by longtime Pocomoke City Manager Russell W. Blake, Downing said.
“They asked Chief Sewell, ‘Did you contact the Department of Justice?’ The mayor and the city attorney questioned him as to why he called them,” said Downing, who attended the meeting. He acknowledged that he had, she said.
Downing and others think the Justice Department is investigating whether the grant money was misused. Blake, who retired June 30 after 40 years in that position, did not return calls for comment.
“DOJ was first interested in the grant; now they are interested in his firing,” Downing said.
Hudson, the city attorney, denied that anything improper had occurred. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
Another issue that residents raised during the community meeting with Justice Department representatives was a canceled election for a District 4 city council seat that was not advertised.
City officials halted it after the incumbent council member, Tracey Cottman, withdrew her candidacy for reelection in the majority-black district. Cottman’s withdrawal came after the 60-day filing deadline, making her white opponent, Brian Hirshman, the only candidate on the ballot.
Residents complained that they never knew that the election was canceled because the city did not advertise the cancellation in local newspapers. The Pocomoke City charter permits the city to cancel an uncontested election but requires it to give the public notice “by publication for two successive weeks in a newspaper or newspapers having general circu- lation in the city.”
During a city council meeting earlier this month, Morrison told residents that the notice had been published. But last week, city officials acknowledged the notice was never published.
Hudson called that an oversight, but said, “I don’t think it would have deprived any wouldbe candidates of the legal right to run in that district because the filing deadline had long since passed.”
But Deborah A. Jeon, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, sent a letter April 14 requesting that Pocomoke City delay Hirshman’s swearing in because of concerns about the lack of notification. She wrote that the district has a black majority and that Pocomoke City, which elected its council members at-large until it faced a 1985 legal challenge to the practice, had a history of disenfranchising its African American residents.
Jeon argued that the failure to publish a notice that the District 4 election was canceled was a violation of the city’s charter and that the city’s actions prevented one would-be black candidate from mounting a last-minute campaign against Hirshman, who was sworn in by the mayor at a city council meeting on April 14. When reached by phone, Hirshman, who works as a police officer in Berlin, said he had no comment on the election.
“What happened here with respect to this municipal election is extremely troubling,” Jeon said in an interview. “Given the history in this community and that African Americans had to bring a federal voting-rights challenge to gain an adequate right to vote and fair representation in the town’s election system, canceling that election without notice to those in the community is simply unfair and should be considered unlawful.”