After a Real News investigation found the Pocomoke City council met in secret to fire the town’s first black police chief, the ACLU has filed a complaint with the Maryland Attorney General’s office
TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: The fallout is continuing over the controversial firing of Pocomoke City’s first black police chief, Kelvin Sewell, last month. City officials representing the small town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore have been so far tight-lipped about why the former Baltimore City homicide investigator was let go. BRUCE MORRISON, MAYOR OF POCOMOKE: But as mayor of Pocomoke City, I feel that the town has been damaged. GRAHAM: Even as residents have argued that crime decreased under his tenure, thanks to his implementation of community-style policing. PASTOR JAMES JONES, LOVE MINISTRIES: He was terminated doing a job that we see as being substantially well. And we can’t find anything else out because of the attorneys for why this happened. GRAHAM: Until now it is a conflict in part defined by race, with Sewell’s supporters and the mayor’s backers equally divided between black and white residents. But allegations that the process itself which led to Sewell’s firing may have been illegal are raising new and more troubling questions about how the town, which bills itself as the friendliest on the Eastern Shore, is governed. JONATHAN TAYLOR, LOWER EASTERN SHORE NEWS: You know, the more light you put on cockroaches, they scurry. And that’s, that’s the way that it works around here. So the more people looking at them the more they got to be careful what they do. GRAHAM: Today Maryland ACLU filed a complaint with the state’s attorney general, alleging that the mayor and city council acted illegally when it convened in a secret meeting to fire Sewell this June. The complaint alleges that two secret meetings, at which the mayor and the council members made the decision to let him go, violate the state’s Open Meetings Act because the meetings were not announced to the public. The complaint comes shortly after it was revealed in the Real News Network ongoing coverage of Sewell’s firing that the council met twice in June to review evidence against Sewell. Meetings attended by Councilwoman Diane Downing, during which she says they reviewed the contents of a tape in which Sewell was alleged to have made an anonymous call to the Pocomoke Police Department regarding an at-large suspect in Snow Hill. COUNCILWOMAN DIANE DOWNING, POCOMOKE, 2ND DISTRICT: And so, and they said the chief made a call, or something. And I said, well, can this be proven that you think he said what you said he said? You know, make an anonymous call. GRAHAM: So far city officials have refused to comment on the process, or the reason for Sewell’s firing. MORRISON: I will not talk about it. I will not talk about it. GRAHAM: Except for text exchanges with residents, with the implication that Sewell had done something wrong. But now that focus is slowly shifting from Sewell’s conduct to actions of top city officials and a city government that appears to operate outside the law. Earlier this month Mayor Bruce Morrison publicly apologized for illegally banning the media from a city council meeting in July. MORRISON: They wanted to speak that night. I thought they had more right to be in this room than the news media. I asked the news media to leave. I got in trouble. I’m in trouble right now with the Attorney General’s Office. GRAHAM: In August Justice Department officials began conducting an audit of a federal grant awarded to the city for hiring an extra officer amid allegations it was mis-spent. Representatives from the Justice Department also briefed the community on several ongoing investigations into possible voting rights violations after officials canceled an election for the city’s 4th District. CHARLES PHILLIPS, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE: There are already processes in the works in terms of looking at the chief’s termination and looking at some of the other issues that, the voting irregularities that were mentioned earlier. GRAHAM: And now questions about the two meetings, which Councilwoman Diane Downing attended behind closed doors, may have implications for both the town and Sewell. That’s because the ACLU argues in their complaint that any decision made during those sessions was also illegal, including the chief’s termination. ACLU attorney Deborah Jeon wrote: the failure of the government to give reasonable advanced notice of a closed meeting, or to conduct a public vote supporting a meeting’s closure, can result in voiding of any action taken during the secret meeting. So far, despite multiple attempts to contact city officials, they have yet to comment on Downing’s recounting of events or the ACLU’s allegations. For now, the lack of information and the growing list of potential improprieties of bad governance are taking a toll on residents, who say they don’t know who to trust. MICHELLE LUCAS, POCOMOKE CITY RESIDENT: Everyone’s kind of examining things now more, I guess. I wasn’t, I never examined it more. GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis for the Real News Network in Pocomoke City. For full disclosure, Stephen Janis wrote a book with Kelvin D. Sewell.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.