Westminster's mayor and police chief denied accusations leveled by a union chief that they misspent money at the expense of public safety, saying the labor representative is trying to drive a wedge through the city's small police force.
Joined by two City Council members and the town manager, the officials went through an hourlong, point-by-point rebuttal of allegations raised by Gary McLhinney, who was hired by the Carroll County Fraternal Order of Police to push for collective bargaining rights for Westminster officers.
"This is nothing more than the Fraternal Order of Police trying to pressure the city, the Police Department and the chief," said Mayor Kevin R. Utz, a retired 28-year veteran of the Maryland State Police. Added Councilman Tony Chiavacci: "It's a game they're playing, and we're not playing the game."
Police Chief Jeffrey Spaulding and other officials said long term-labor agreements could cripple the city during tough economic times, and they noted they avoided laying off police even as they cut back on other expenses.
"We're in the middle of a recession," said City Council President Damian L. Halstad, an attorney. "I'm grateful to have a job. Right now is not the right time to ask for additional perks and additional benefits."
The officials accused McLhinney of using their employees to bolster membership in statewide police fraternal organizations. "When he's done here, he'll go on and target another department," Utz said.
Retorted McLhinney: "Don't shoot the messenger. Talk to your employees."
Spaulding said he understands that every officer on the 45-member force, as well as all other city employees, wants raises, but he noted that all workers just got one-time $800 bonuses in their paychecks last week. A Westminster officer starts at about $37,000 a year.
McLhinney, who works for a downtown Baltimore law firm that negotiates contracts for officers in departments across the state, and is a former chief of the Maryland Transportation Authority, said Westminster spent money on perks for the bosses even while the force was short-staffed.
He questioned recent purchases by Spaulding and his top commanders — a major and three captains — of new iPhones and iPads, in part with money from the sale of assets seized from drug dealers.
McLhinney also said that two top commanders have take-home cars even though one lives in Harford County and the other commutes more than 50 miles each way to work from eastern Baltimore County.
Spaulding said the police force has six vacancies, including a position of captain and detective that cannot be filled because of budget constraints. There are four vacancies in patrol, but he said he's hired one officer and is about to hire a second. Spaulding said he hoped to have all patrol positions filled with in two months.
The chief defended his two commanders having take-home vehicles even though they live outside the county, saying they need to quickly respond to emergencies and be available at all hours.
City officials also released a list of expenditures out of the asset forfeiture funds made since 2006. This list is what city officers seized on their own; it does not include seizures made through a joint task force of several departments in the county.
Money spent in 2011 includes $3,572 to buy five electronic ticketing computers for patrol cars. It also includes an $832.86 iPad for Spaulding. The chief said his command staff did get iPhones, as McLhinney charged, but those were paid for by the city's general fund.
Utz and Spaulding defended the iPad purchase, saying the chief needs the most updated technology to communicate with staff and keep up with the demands of his job.
"So the chief has an $800 iPad, and the officers on the street have $5,000 Panasonic computer work stations," said Utz. "Why would anyone have a problem with that?"
McLhinney said that he's responding to the requests of 32 city officers who signed a letter in October asking the union "to pursue collective bargaining so they could have a voice in what goes on in that city."
The union official said that drug forfeiture money "is meant to supplement your force for things that you normally couldn't budget for, like equipment for your drug unit, like things that make supporting the war on drugs easier."
McLhinney said that his goal is not to break the department. "These are very difficult economic times and for any police department, getting a raise is very difficult," he said. "These men and women understand that. They just don't want to see limited resources wasted on commanders."