City Watch

Santiago’s Situation Demands Resolution

By Kevin Fisher
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
“Can’t anybody here play this game?” — Attributed to Casey Stengel, manager, 1962 New York Mets (and immortalized by the Jimmy Breslin book of the same name)

Though Stengel’s quote was about the team generally considered the worst in Major League Baseball history, it also brings to mind our local government entities. While it could apply to incidents ranging from Richland County’s adventures in elections and contracts to the City of Columbia’s adventures in — well, just about everything — it is particularly apt in describing the latest search for yet another new police chief, our eighth in seven years.

Of course, this is a search that should never have taken place. If Columbia had leadership that is “bold and visionary” — as Mayor Steve Benjamin likes to call for, or call himself, or both — we would be merging the Columbia Police Department with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. But it seems Benjamin feels being bold and visionary is only about incurring debt and making deals, not consolidating services and saving tax dollars. Please broaden your horizons, Mr. Mayor, for our sake and your legacy.

But if Benjamin and Council will not seize the opportunity to merge our law enforcement agencies and create a more efficient and effective force, they should at least put the police chief search on hold until the corruption charges against interim Chief Ruben Santiago are resolved.

Make no mistake, Santiago has lots of folks who support and believe in him. That their man is not being given a fair shake in their eyes pending resolution of the charges against him does not sit well with many in the community.

As I have previously written, Santiago has been in a situation that is unfair to him if he is innocent and unfair to us if he is not. The fact that City Manager Teresa Wilson failed to either clear him or suspend him in the wake of the allegations, and instead left Santiago in place as the investigation dragged on, says nothing good about her management style.

Consistency is apparently not her strong suit either, as she said in September that she would wait for the results of the investigation, then reversed that decision a few weeks later and announced the search for a new chief. Further, she said Santiago could apply for the job, even while accused of a drug-planting scheme that would make Tony Soprano smile.

Even at this late hour, Wilson would be wise to put the search on hold and await the 13th Circuit Solicitor’s decision on the already completed SLED and FBI reports. If she lacks that wisdom, Council should impose it upon her.

If Santiago is indicted, so be it. Move on, and good riddance. But if he is cleared, he deserves full consideration as a finalist for the position of Columbia police chief. Either way, letting the investigation run its course harms no one and will allow the city to move forward without the bitter feelings that will be present, that will linger and that will be aimed at Wilson by Santiago’s supporters if he is cleared.

In other words, it is not just for the good of the future police chief but also for the good of the present city manager that the Santiago matter be resolved before a new chief is chosen. This is particularly true in that Wilson came to her job in such a controversial and non-transparent process, with no finalists for the position named as required by law, her appointment hurriedly made at a special-called meeting of Council two days after Christmas, and — this is the kicker — with the qualifications lowered in order to include her after the search began.

Accordingly, the irony was rich when The State reported that Wilson said this about Santiago not making the cut: “His qualifications did not allow him to move forward.” I guess that depends, huh?

For the record, I’m neither a friend of Santiago nor a foe of Wilson. This is about professionalism, not personalities. And again,I’m for a newly merged police agency, not a new chief.

That said, when it comes to the search process, can’t anybody here play this game?

Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.

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