Paonia Police Department Sergeant Neal Ferguson will be sworn in as the chief of police at the April 11 board meeting following an appointment by the town board. The ceremony will include the swearing in of a new police officer, Stewart Byrge.
The 2017 budget doesn't include any salary increases to allow for a police chief, and Mayor Charles Stewart has stated that the town cannot afford one. But Ferguson has agreed do the job at the same salary he receives as sergeant. Without the title, said Ferguson, his powers are limited. As an example, when working with other law enforcement departments, "They don't want to be as forthcoming with information because you're just a sergeant." That information can often help improve safety and the department's ability to do its job, said Ferguson.
Prior to the vote, the board, Ferguson and town administrator Ken Knight went into executive session to discuss personnel issues related to the appointment. Trustees then approved the appointment by a 3-2 vote, with Bill Brunner and Suzanne Watson voting nay.
The two trustees say they aren't questioning Ferguson's ability to do the job, but are very concerned about the legality of the appointment. Last May the then newly-seated board voted to remove the town administrator, public works director and chief of police from the list of appointed officers in order to bring the town in compliance with state statute. It was one of this sitting board's first actions and was passed under emergency measures, said Brunner. That removed the board's ability to appoint the position.
Watson said she would not support the appointment because she believes the town is not correctly following its own laws.
Stewart argued that the chief of police is not an officer under current town code, and that the board is appointing him at Knight's recommendation. The town has an obligation to have a chief of police to effectively police this town, said Stewart. "It is a matter of public safety, "and will allow Ferguson to exercise full authority."
Trustee Chelsea Bookout thanked Ferguson for his dedication and for leading the department "... under some pretty difficult circumstances. I appreciate your presence in the community."
Ferguson is the first police chief at Paonia since former chief Scott Leon retired in May of 2015. Ferguson joined the department in July 2007 and was promoted from investigator to sergeant in January 2016.
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, the Delta County Board of Commissioners called a special meeting to consider the board's response to the Bureau of Land Management's preliminary Environmental Assessment (EA) concerning the lease parcels proposed for the December BLM sale.
Several people from the North Fork were present to provide input.