DEMOREST – Demorest City Clerk/Manager Kim Simonds terminated the employment of Police Chief Robin Krockum Thursday afternoon, and that move has drawn the ire of Mayor Rick Austin.
Austin became even angrier after Simonds attempted to have him removed from a meeting at the police department Friday morning where she was introducing Greg Ellingson as interim police chief.
“I was asked to leave the meeting,” Austin said.
“I said, ‘You don’t have the authority to make him interim chief according to the charter, the policies and procedures and Georgia state law’,” Austin said. “She opened the door and she said, ‘You may leave’ and I refused to leave. At that point in time, she said, ‘You’re really not going to leave?’ and I said, ‘I will not leave’.
“I said the only way I’ll leave is if the person you think is police chief escorts me out of here,” Austin said. “I was not escorted out. He did not make any motion to make me leave, but the city manager certainly tried to force me from that meeting.”
Austin contends that while Simonds did not exceed her authority in firing Krockum, she did so in naming a temporary replacement.
“Our city manager has the authority only to nominate someone for interim chief,” Austin said. “She does have the authority to fire, but she has only the authority to nominate someone for chief. Anybody that is nominated then has to be approved by council by a majority vote. That has not occurred, so we are outside policy and procedure.”
Austin said Ellingson, who has worked for the city for more than 25 years and was Krockum’s predecessor, was sworn in at Simonds’ request Thursday night, though Austin as mayor received no notification of that.
“I’ve later been informed, but not officially, that Greg Ellingson was sworn in at 7:30 p.m. by Pam Wooley, the probate judge,” Austin said. “I can tell you that I do not recognize Greg Ellingson as police chief because it runs counter to our city charter, it runs counter to our policies and procedures, and it runs frankly counter to Georgia law.”
Austin said Simonds provided no official reason for firing Krockum, though it seems to stem from a social media post made by one of the city’s police officers who was critical of city government.
“Chief Krockum stood by his officer’s First Amendment right to free speech and backed it up with court cases involving government employee speech – and he did so with polite professionalism,” Austin wrote in a Facebook post. “Citizens should know that neither me nor Councilman [Sean] Moore were consulted or informed that this was being considered. Citizens should also know that no official communication from Manager Simonds has been sent to the mayor and complete council. There is no room in our city for back room politics, back room swearing ins and shady deals. Those days should be gone.”
After Friday morning’s meeting, Austin said police department sworn and civilian employees were informed they have job security and will continue to function within their authority, though he contends Simonds is operating outside her authority and Ellingson is not interim chief unless affirmed by a majority of the city council.
In addition to its police officers, Demorest employees a probation officer and three Georgia Crime Information Center personnel who run criminal background checks for outside firms who contract with the city.
“We’re going to continue to work on this issue,” Austin said. “I want everybody to understand that our police officers and everyone else that works in GCIC, we’re going to continue to serve the citizens of Demorest and we’re going to do so because this is their police department, this is their police force.”
The leadership change means the police department will have to operate without running GCIC background checks for outside firms, at least for now.
“In the short term, GCIC cannot operate,” Austin said. “According to Georgia law as I understand it, we have to have a chief that’s in place. At this point we don’t have a chief that’s in place until council meets and appoints an interim chief. I see nothing that GCIC can do other than to answer phones and let our clients know that we can’t run background checks at this point.”
Austin said the change in leadership at the police department and proposal to pay the county to take over Demorest Fire Department
“The concerted effort by the two newly-elected councilmen and city manager to dismantle public safety in our town has begun…and everyone should be concerned,” Austin’s post reads.
Simonds so far has not acknowledged AccessWDUN’s request for comment on the matter.