Springfield — Town leaders in Springfield said residents are pleased to have their former police chief back after he was rehired following a court-ordered resignation in a ticket-fixing case.
In the first Board of Aldermen meeting since James Jones was reappointed, no one in leadership or the public discussed his return, other than to approve the minutes from a Dec. 30 special meeting during which he was confirmed.
Jones pleaded guilty to criminal mischief in April after a former town police officer said the police chief and former Mayor Charlie Martin pressured him into dropping a drunken-driving charge as a favor to Martin’s friend in 2011. Jones also threw away the officer’s paperwork.
Under the conditions of a deal reached with prosecutors, the state dropped Jones’ felony charges and jail time but demanded he resign his post. However, Jones was not precluded from reclaiming his old job. The Board of Aldermen quietly hired him back during a special meeting Dec. 30.
Various board members said they reappointed Jones in a special meeting rather than a regular meeting to speed up the process. The interim chief had said he quit in frustration around October, and at the time Jones was rehired, the small town had no police force.
“We had no patrolmen,” Alderman John Traylor said.
Traylor said he was aware of no other applicants for the job and said Jones was the right pick. The alderman said residents like the chief and used to ask when he would be coming back.
“There was no better man for the job,” Traylor said.
Approached after the meeting, Jones angrily said news outlets have reported only half the story, but when asked for his perspective, he declined to comment, intimating he had been so advised by a lawyer.
David Caldwell prosecuted the case for the previous state attorney general after the local district attorney recused himself. Caldwell has said the decision to rehire Jones was “unfathomably dumb” and could spell trouble for the town.
Employing a police chief who destroyed evidence could “taint” the department’s future criminal investigations and could be exploited by anyone who sues the town alleging that an officer behaved inappropriately, he has said.
Acting Mayor Tommy Abels and Town Attorney Brian Abels, cousins, didn’t agree with Caldwell’s assessment, and Brian Abels called the other lawyer’s comments to reporters “unprofessional.”
If the Attorney General’s Office was so concerned about Jones coming back, it could have forbidden it as it did with the mayor, the town attorney remarked.
Curiously, the case in Springfield is not the first time the previous attorney general’s administration reached a deal to have a government leader fired only to have the office-holder try to reclaim the seat. In 2014, a School Board member in nearby Tangipahoa Parish pleaded guilty to theft and tax evasion and was court-ordered to resign, and though he won re-election six months later, a judge permanently banned him from serving on the board.
Brian Abels has said he’s read through the court transcript in the Jones case and there is no legal prohibition keeping him from serving as chief. Caldwell had said he assumed town leaders would have used “common sense” and not rehire Jones.
The cases in Springfield and Tangipahoa also differ in that the School Board seat was an elected office, while the police chief is hired by appointment upon recommendation of the mayor and confirmation by the Board of Aldermen.
The town could leave the hiring of the chief up to voters. Louisiana law allows municipalities to decide the head of the police department at the ballots, and several communities in Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes select their chief by vote.
Brian Abels said Springfield likely could switch to a similar setup, though he was not immediately aware of the exact legal process for doing so.
Alderman Greg Hill said making the position an elective one “might be a good idea,” though others were less enamored by the thought. Marsha Sherburne remarked that the position has always been an appointment and that there is no guarantee that voters would elect someone who would follow the law.
In the meantime, Brian and Tommy Abels said Springfield is in the process of reviewing Police Department procedures, though they said they were too early in the process to discuss any specific changes to protocols that may be enacted.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.