It was a great day for Uniontown on Monday, Sept. 19. At the City Council meeting, ex-Mayor James May stopped by, along with Perry County Commissioner Benjamin Eaton and other members of Black Belt Citizens, to announce a gift they had for the City of Uniontown.
They asked for the council and those in attendance to follow them outside for a few minutes. Outside was a backhoe and a truck and trailer Black Belt Citizens had acquired for use by the City of Uniontown.
“We sat around and thought about what we could do to help Uniontown, maybe make it look a little better.” May said of the gift. Though there are stipulations to the usage of the vehicles, May assured the Council the vehicles are for Uniontown’s use and the Council promptly voted to approve the contracts and use of the new equipment.
The Council was ecstatic about the gift. May gave a speech outside, and afterwards Councilman Ronald Miller gave one as well, commending May and all he had done for the community.
“This man taught me how to use heavy equipment and set me on my way. He’s been a blessing to this community, and he knows and you all know how much he means to me.” After that Miller ceremoniously turned on the backhoe, while Streets and Sanitation Head George Bell turned on the truck and the crowd and council applauded.
The celebrations weren’t done, however. After going back indoors and continuing through the agenda, Attorney Prince Chestnut night’s meeting over two months later. According to the accident report, the Marion Police car driven by Sykes was parked at the Waffle House at the intersection of Valley Ave. and Green Springs Highway in Birmingham at 4:22 a.m. when another driver backed into it. The damage to the vehicle was, by all accounts, minor.
“From looking at the damage that has happened, I look at it as an incident,” said Hinton. “I look at it as day-to-day operation. Because it was not totaled. This was $300 worth of damage. Hasn’t nobody lost their life, haven’t been any vehicles totaled out, we had the vehicle repaired in a timely fashion.”
Jackson said the council had not been given “much to go by” to assess what happened on the night in question.
“I was given this [report],” said Hinton. “I was emailed this.”
Jackson asked when the city had received the accident report. “Why are we just now finding out about it?”
“Actually, the report had been requested for over a month. We had a discrepancy. So I don’t know why Birmingham can’t get it to us in a timely fashion,” said Hinton.
Councilman Joe Pearson said he had consulted the department’s work schedule for the day in question, and Sykes had been off duty since the night before the accident.
“If the accident happened at 4:22 a.m. on July 2, what was that [car] out at 4:00 in the morning when he got off at 6:00 the night before?” said Pearson.
“Well, so what would you all like the distance to be that they can travel?” said Hinton. “You’re saying that’s a misuse of the vehicles…what are we going to do? Why I’m asking this is…if we have an officer that’s going to any emergency in the city, they have to be there in a timely fashion. In their own personal vehicle, they don’t have lights, they don’t have sirens, they have to get here. So what is our accommodation going to be to address that issue?”
“I say we just terminate his employment,” said Pearson.
“He’s already said that,” said Hinton.
“I say we terminate it tonight,” said Pearson.
“He’s already gone,” said Hinton.
“He left this city for a whole week, shorthanded. He was supposed to work 7 to 7 yesterday, but he didn’t show up until 5:00 yesterday afternoon,” said Pearson. According to Marion PD duty logs, Sykes recently took a week off by combining sick leave, scheduled time off, and vacation time.
“The email was sent last week,” said Hinton. “I made contact to return the vehicle to our contact. And he sent an email about resigning.”
Hinton said the council should consider that officers are “on call 24 hours a day. That’s all I’m saying. If something happens to me, I want somebody to be able to get there and have some sirens.”
“All I’m saying is, the citizens of Marion have got to be secured, safe, have to have people accountable to be able to do their job,” he said.
“I’ll say this,” said Jackson. “A month ago, or two months ago, if they would have brought the car in, this never would have happened. It never would have had an accident. We told you.”
“Arguments can be made, ‘Should they be able to take the cars home, should they not?’” said Councilmember Jeff Nail. “This happened on a Saturday evening, at 4:00 in the morning, at a Waffle House in Birmingham. And then it just sort of sat around for two and a half months. And then, when questions were asked, the officer resigned. There are a lot of questions this incident brings up.”
“What we’re seeing is pretty minor,” said Nail, referring to the superficial damage the car sustained. “But a car accident in a city car on a weekend, when it’s my understanding he typically didn’t work weekends. Basically it came across to the city council that this happened and then when questions were asked… there shouldn’t be a lot of ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’ It’s very straightforward to ask him what happened. And he should have provided a narrative to the city. And it should have checked out with this [report],” Nail said. “And all I know is that someone was at a Waffle House at 4:00 in the morning on Valley Ave. I’ll let y’all check that [location] out. It raises more than a few alarm bells.”
“It doesn’t take much to say, ‘Four in the morning, let’s check the schedule. Okay, that doesn’t check out.’ It was a very minor incident, but it brought up a lot of questions that were just sort of ignored. And I think it’s a shame that it lingered this long, Nail continued. “Regarding taking home cars—yeah, we do need officers here. But if someone’s breaking into my house, I really don’t want to wait on someone to drive in from Birmingham.”
“We don’t have any local officers,” said Hinton. He asked if the council wanted to “Work up a policy or something.”
“My recommendation is this—if you don’t reside in the city limits, not to take them outside the city limits,” said Councilmember Bernard Arrington.
Ultimately, the council voted to approve a policy that night, based on a motion made by Pearson and seconded by Arrington, that officers, with the exception of the chief of police, not be allowed to take their cars outside the city limits. That motion carried by unanimous voice vote.