By Lyra Bordelon
Over the past few months, an ongoing conflict between the Rainelle Town Council, Recorder Bill Bell, Mayor Jason Smith, and the Rainelle Police Department has come to a head with Smith’s resignation and Town Council not agreeing to move forward with any hiring for the police force. The department has, since July 2019, dropped from the four full-time officers, with a vacant part-time position looking to be filled by then Chief J.P Stevens, to having only Chief Dean Fankell and one other officer, Josh Stevens, who has turned in his resignation effective Monday, October 2.
The result is the ever declining number of responses to calls for service – according to information provided by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, and Fankell, as the number of officers has decreased without replacement, the number of calls for service the department can respond to has been cut by nearly half. This is accompanied by a drop in citations, but also by an increase in arrests. In addition, it has brought a number of citizens to Town Council meetings and social media to discuss the issues around a homeless population in the town.
“Larry Cooper, 80 years old, lives on 7th Street for 46 years his concern is the trash across the road from his house,” reads the Town Council minutes. “They are squatters, no power, water, sewer and they have trash piled up in front of the house and are bury something under the house. Mr. Cooper’s daughter Melisa spoke up, she said the town has an obligation to the citizen to evict them.”
The refrain repeats through the Town Council meetings once it begins in August 2019, starting relatively small, with comment from Gary Martin on enforcing property codes and issues with “those who appear to homeless and possibly have addiction problems.” From there, the minutes reflect complaint after complaint until suddenly stopping in April due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“Nelson O’dell, had his home broke into and they took his bike and new heater he just bought. He lives on 7th Street, there’s only four houses on the street, two are drug houses. … Two of these houses do not have power or water, but they know how to get water turned back on.”
“The ASP houses have so many people living in them, inside, outside and under them and garbage everywhere,” the minutes describe comments from Joyce Cline. “Living with no electricity, water, or sewage and we are letting them. There needs to be an officer that enforces the ordinances of this town.”
“Jeremy Tincher, Greenbrier West teacher, discussed the homelessness, squatters, and back packers in the town. What is the town council going to do about this problem?”
In February, a 30 day hiring freeze was put in place, anticipating the wild changes to the budget that COVID-19 could bring to the town. However, after that freeze ended, no additional officers have been hired. According to council minutes, the prime reason for officers not being brought on to replace those that are now missing was significantly reduced revenue produced by the department.
“Bell stated he did not single out the police department for cuts nor does he intend to,” reads the minutes. “[Bell] spoke on the amount of income the police department brings in. He reiterated the police department brought in $66,225.00 [in the 2017/2018 year], $60,008 [in 2018/2019] and July 2019 to [March], $11,632. These numbers don’t lie, we just can’t justify hiring right now.”
Bell and several councilmembers also pointed to the leadership of the police department since the departure of former chief J.P. Stevens and Fankell took over in July 2019.
“We absolutely have to do better with what we’ve got. … There’s no reason for us to hire more people if they’re going to be [working] under the same circumstances, the same chief, telling them what not to do,” Bell said. “There’s no use in us spending more money on no results. If we can get results, I’m all for hiring more police officers. You can hire them any time you want to, but only if we get results. If we have a leadership that is not willing to work, we need a leadership change that is willing to work, whether it’s working for the citizens of the town, … the business people, … Harm Reduction, whoever it may be with, we need to work in unity with one another.”
“I’m totally against hiring more police officers until we see improvement,” said Councilmember Martha Livesay. “It’s embarrassing what’s happening here, I’m on the city council but I’m also a citizen and I couldn’t get help. You can’t even take a walk around here without something happening. There are lots of things that go on, all you have to do is go take a walk and you’ll see.”
Livesay also stated the Town Council could not move forward with hiring for the police department.
“The reason nothing was done regarding the police department is that the mayor has full jurisdiction over the police department, he can hire or fire at his discretion,” Livesay explained. “The City Council cannot vote, we have no power when it came to that. … Anything other than the police department. … It’s the way they wrote the city ordinances many years ago and the structure over there needs to be updated, but it’s a major deal.”
Bell explained that he had personally responded to requests for help from the citizens, looking to provide some kind of assistance to those in need, and felt that Fankell was not out of the office or on the streets enough.
“These issues are minor things that would not require a call to 911 such as perpetual yard sales, back packers, illegally parked vehicles, litter issues, and vagrants using vacant structures, etc,” Bell wrote in a memo.
In another example cited by Bell, during the first meeting in October, a resolution was passed by council “signing” all ordinances that had been previously passed by counsel. Before moving to sign the resolutions, Bell noted Fankell would not enforce any ordinances that were not signed, even if they had been passed on two readings and placed into the ordinance book.
“Evidently you guys need to make a motion to approve it so it can be signed, so it can be enforced, if I understood that correct. … This was voted on and passed twice by the town council and never got signed,” Bell said. “If I understood it right, we have not been enforcing ordinances that have not been signed. Is that what I’m hearing them say? We’re not going to sit at this table and pick and choose and cherry pick ordinances.”
In addition to the staffing problems, one proposed solution common on the street is to get the police more active in patrolling the area.
“We stop them on the sidewalk, we stop them on the street, we do our jobs to alleviate the problem as best we can by stopping them,” said Councilperson John Wyatt. “I know Chief Fankell said we can’t do that because they have rights too. They do have rights, but so do the citizens of Rainelle that we were hired to protect. Somehow they’re superseding the people that are here tonight. We have to get control of this in some way.”
Both Smith and Fankell pushed back against a number of the complaints against the department, most frequently pointing to the lack of staffing replacements for lost officers over the past two years.
“Mr. Fankell worked 27 years for the Greenbrier County Sheriff’s Department and he did everything by the book, by the code, and by law,” Smith said. “He will not do anything to jeopardize his law enforcement credentials.”
Both also pushed back against random searches, explaining that probable cause is needed before a search can begin.
“Early on, they wanted to see police officers going out there and ripping the backpacks off of folks and dumping them out on the ground to see if they had stolen property or drugs. That is completely unlawful for an officer to do that,” Fankell said. “We tried to education them … but just because you see someone with a backpack doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a druggie, doesn’t mean they’re a homeless person. … I don’t know where they got the idea from, it may have been something that happened many, many decades ago, but it doesn’t happen today, at least not here under my watch. … There’s a lot of oversight on law enforcement officers.”
Smith and Fankell explained an issue with the pay structure in town – for many city workers, overtime is paid through time and a half over 40 hours a week. However, for the police department, paid time off is accrued instead.
“They will not pay them over time to work, yet they want more coverage,” Smith explained. “If an officer accrued PTO, then the officer had to be use that PTO within 30 days of when they collected it. Let me give you an example … Let’s say that [an officer] works an entire month, October, and … earns 20 hours of PTO. Come the first of November, [the officer] has to burn 20 hours of PTO time in those 30 days. What does that tell you? In the month of November, at some point in time, when I only have two officers, [the officer] is 20 hours sitting at home when he should be having those 20 hours on the street.”
Fankell also explained he was working as much as he could as one person without more staff.
“If you’re in the office doing administrative paperwork or making a schedule, [returning phone calls], they complain when you’re in the office,” Fankell explained. “If you’re out on the street, … they complain about you not being around. It’s a Catch-22, you can’t please them.”’
Another financial situation pointed to by Bell is the use of the Municipal Service Fee. Bell asserted that the fee can only be used on police department equipment not payroll wages. According to the 2015 document that enacted the Municipal Service Fee, 20 percent is dedicated to “police protections” for the “public health, safety, comfort, and general welfare of the citizens and residents” which requires “continence, maintenance, and improvement of municipal services including police protection, street maintenance, and stream restoration.” In addition, the possibility of raising the municipal fee to pay for a K9 unit was discussed in September 2019.
Smith was also critical of Bell’s attempts to help in some situations.
“[The citizen] says ‘don’t worry about it, ‘I called Bill Bell and he took care of the situation.’ Bill Bell has no law enforcement authority in the town of Rainelle but he runs around taking 911 calls … acting like a police officer when we don’t have an officer on duty, which is going to end up biting the town,” Smith said. “…[In another situation], one of the neighbors called, didn’t call 911, didn’t call Town Hall, … they called Bill Bell and he pulls up here because he knows I never leave the house without carrying my gun, and he wants my help to go kick in the doors to an abandoned house when he doesn’t have the authority to do so.”
He continued, explaining that not even the mayor is able to assist in arrests.
“There have been times I’ve been there to help,” Smith explained. “There’s not much I can do now because [in 1977 a section of state code was removed], I had full arresting power. I don’t have that now. … I would love to go out here and hit the streets and help them until [we] got other officers, but I would be nothing more than a security guard, the only thing I could do is observe and report.”
Bell addressed these issues in a July memo.
“In the future, when I get these calls, I will have the individual with the complaint complete a complaint form to be given to the proper authority to handle,” Bell wrote.
An Emergency Solution
Looking for a way to break deadlock, Smith found a potential solution in the powers of the office of the mayor – although the hiring power for town employees itself typically falls to Town Council, approving the expenditure of funds on new employees, the mayor could declare an emergency and use the power of the office to hire more officers.
“Honestly I don’t want to argue anymore,” Smith said in a recent council meeting. “… I’m just so sick and tired of coming here and it’s just ‘police police police police’ I’ll tell you what my plan is. One of my first part-time officers is going to come back is JP Stevens. You can read it and weep, that’s what’s going to take place. I’m tired of arguing, you want to see some s*** change, we’re going to see some s*** change.”
However, this plan was not enacted due to the uncertainty, Fankell explained.
“One of the conversations I’ve had with the mayor is that he declared an emergency and said we were going to fill these positions,” Fankell said. “I gave him a hypothetical situation of if we were to hire a candidate and take them before council, to try to get the approval, … would that person receive a pay check. I could foresee that the recorder could refuse to sign off on the payroll sheet. … We can’t expect them to work for free while we litigate.”
Public Without Official Input
The continued lack of coverage from the Rainelle Police Department, excluding the assistance provided by the Greenbrier County Sheriff’s Department within town limits, led to many individuals bringing their concerns in front of the Town Council during public comment periods. This, however, was stopped due to COVID, with crowds gathering outside Town Hall for several of the recent council meetings.
“The council themselves, when COVID-19 started, voted for closed meetings,” Smith explained. “The only people that would be allowed to talk are the people that signed up on the agenda to talk. There would be no special guest speakers, no discussion. When we have open meetings, we have a legal pad sitting on the desk and when people walk in … they are allowed to put their name on a piece of paper and, by Robert’s Rules, they have three minutes for comments, questions, and concerns. We voted to not have anyone in there during COVID-19.”
The minutes break this down further, explaining that, “Mayor Jason Smith and Recorder Bill Bell spoke on open and closed meetings and they decided that all essential meetings are to be closed to the public,” as of the April 8 meeting. Then on May 11, “council approved closed meetings until further notice.”
Smith expressed frustration with who has spoken at the meetings since the shut down began.
“Here’s the thing about that,” Smith said. “They voted on it themselves, but anytime someone shows up to bash the mayor or the police department and the mayor, they want to open the meeting, … but if it were someone coming to bash the Town Council they won’t let them in.”
When asked about the restricted public comment, Bell cited an email response from the West Virginia Ethics Commission.
“The Ethics Commission allows for the meeting to be virtual as long as it’s being broadcast for the public and for all to call and listen,” Bell read. “It does not require council to allow public comment or input unless it is a public hearing on a matter.” After a moment, Bell added “I don’t agree with it.”
Attempts by the Mountain Messenger to get the rest of the email chain between the town and the ethics commission through a Freedom of Information Act Request were unsuccessful.
Conflict at Council Meetings
Fankell and the Town Council have had a difficult relationship, with conflict often emerging. For example, a conflict emerged between Bell and Fankell over a question Fankell brought to the council.
“Why does the town have a convicted felon riding in the town truck saying he’s working for the town?” the minutes for the February 24 meeting read. “Why doesn’t everyone have a background check when hired?” He continued on to ask if, now that 30 days had passed since the hiring freeze was put into place, can “a current vacant police position” now be filled now that “we are having budget cuts? Are there going to be other department budget cuts, since the law enforcement is paid out of the municipal service fees and their cuts are last.”
In the following meeting Councilmember John Wyatt stated the discussion, “should not have been public knowledge, should have been taken up with the recorder, and was on the border of insubordination.” Bell also addressed the questions.
“The felon referred to is an individual receiving public assistance,” the minutes of March 9 read. “The caseworker for the WVDHHR called me and asked if he could work his hours off for his public assistance. As far as budget cuts go, [Bell stated] he did not single out the police department for cuts nor does he intend to.”
Following this in July, an open letter was posted by Fankell to the Town Council, criticizing the way meetings had been handled during the pandemic.
“While I applaud you [for streaming the meetings on Facebook] in this step toward transparency, it in turn creates another issues in which the Town Council … [is] only being presented with one individual’s perspective or side on certain matters being discussed in these ‘closed meetings.’”
Fankell also criticized Bell, pointing out that he does not oversee the police department saying “if the town recorder desires to micromanage the police department, then he should file to run for mayor’s office in the next election,” and the council meetings at large, explaining that “a significant portion of the people watching these meetings are rolling their eyes and commenting about them looking more like school kids squabbling than adults trying to run a town government.”
In response, Bell issued a memo, explaining that “since the employees of the police department are paid out of the town of Rainelle’s general operating fund, it is the responsibility of the recorder to require proper documentation to support all expenditures and see that the town’s finances are in order.”
Livesay, the former town recorder, agreed.
“It’s true, the recorder is responsible for all the finances,” Livesay said. “ I was the recorder when Andy Pendleton was mayor, she was a good mayor. She and I would review all the checks together and nothing was ever signed without us both approving it.”
As a result of the letter and the response, Councilmember Danny Milam said, according to the minutes of the August 10 meeting, “we need to do something about the department in question NOW. We have gone long enough; this administration has been here eight months and this council has always works for the town and that’s who the police department works for.”
In the August 24 meeting, Councilmember John Wyatt told Fankell the open letter was a “kind of conduct towards the council and the town … bordering on insubordination.” The minutes continue, stating “Wyatt stated he has been broken into, robbed, and the police department has accused him of being a liar. At this time council member John Wyatt left the building due to a conflict between him and Police Chief Fankell.”
Homeless Rumor Unconfirmed
Bell, Smith, and Greenbrier County Sheriff Bruce Sloan expressed uncertainty about where the homeless population had emerged from, with one popular rumor being that they’ve been bused in. This has not been confirmed by any law enforcement agency or government body to date.
“Is that true? I don’t know. That’s one of the rumors I’ve heard,” Smith said. “But again there are people that walk up and down in front of my house that I’ve never laid eyes on before. But I’m 47 and some of the people that walk down my street look like they’re 20 and 21, and if they were born and raised in this town, I don’t know who they are, I don’t know who their parents are. They’re not doing anything illegal walking down the street … for me to walk out and question them and ask them who they are.”
“I can’t say 100 percent across the board that everyone is from out of town, because there are a couple of locals but the majority are not from this area,” Fankell said. “The couple of folks that I have spoken to personally and I’ve had local store employees that have spoken to them and the next time they see us, they related what they were hearing back from these folks.”
Bell, Smith, and Fankell also pointed to the flood of 2016 and a number of abandoned buildings often used as squatting grounds for the homeless population. However, the town currently cannot afford to hire a code enforcement officer, something that has been in discussion since before Smith took office in 2019. In addition, fighting this problem has proven difficult for the small Rainelle Police Department for an obvious reason.
“Some of these folks know an officer’s schedule better than the officer himself probably knows it,” Fankell said. “Back in the summer, I was working my way towards my residence at the end of my shift, and I pulled up to talk to a subject that was on the sidewalk and he just looked straight at me and asked ‘isn’t it about time for you to go home?’ because he knew what time I came out that morning. They keep track of us, especially when they know there’s only one or two.”
In addition to the recent resignation of Councilmeber Monica Venable, Smith has now also submitted a letter of resignation.
Before he resigned, Smith had been considering it for some time, explaining that the position has been criticized by the public and other individuals he ran with in the 2019 election, where he won a write in vote. Bell, who campaigned for Smith, said “I ran the campaign [and] that was the campaign. I have failed miserably for our town and I am willing to stand up and admit… I am humiliated.”
Bell and Wyatt both pointed to Smith’s lack of office hours in Town Hall and relative unavailability as a reason for lack of confidence in the now-former mayor. Smith pointed to his need for time management.
“I don’t think citizens truly understand what we get paid,” Smith said. “My check every month is $362.40 – 50 cents an hour, that’s what my salary amounts to. Everyone says ‘why’s the mayor not working full-time Monday to Friday, 8 to 5 in city hall.’ I’ve got bills to pay, a family to raise, vehicles to pay for, groceries to buy. The mayor is not a full time just and has never been a full-time job.”
Citing these complaints, Smith explained to the Mountain Messenger on October 13, before his resignation, that the office has been stressful.
“I’m kind of a stone-hearted individual, most things don’t bother me, but I will say that it is very hurtful, some of the stuff I read and some of the comments I see on Facebook,” Smith said. “One of the biggest things I see is that the mayor doesn’t give a s***. … I have a 12 year old son. I care about everyone else’s kids and I care about the drug problem. It wouldn’t make a difference if I was the mayor or not, I’m still a citizen of Rainelle. … It gets to a certain point in life where it starts affecting your home life and your family life. Once it gets to that point, you’ve drawn the line. If it continues, I want no part of it at all.”
With Smith’s resignation, what happens next is up in the air.
“They act like all these drug problems started 24 hours after we took over,” Smith said. “Those drugs problems have always been here, we’ve always had drug problems. … Have they gotten worse? Yes, they have. I’ll be the first to admit that. Has the homeless situation gotten worse? Yeah, it has. … I don’t know what the answer is to fixing the problem.”