WHEELING - After 40 years on the books, city residents in November overturned a law that requires two police officers in each cruiser.
By more than 2,800 votes - 6,773 for abolishing the law to 3,905 against - voters agreed Nov. 6 that Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger should have the discretion to staff patrol cars as he deems necessary.
City Manager Robert Herron said the police department's new staffing schedule will be fully implemented on Jan. 6. He said there already are several one-officer cruisers doing traffic patrol and grant enforcement in the city.
Wheeling voters this year chose to abolish the municipal law requiring two police officers ride in every patrol car. The Fraternal Order of Police claims the election is invalid.
"We're very pleased with the vote margin," Herron said. "We have an outstanding police department now, and the vote gives to chief the flexibility to assign officers in the most efficient way possible. We are grateful for that, as it will lead to more police presence in the community."
Schwertfeger said he formed a committee consisting of police supervisors and dispatchers to help develop new patrol protocols related to the change. The committee developed three priorities for calls.
Priority one and two calls - primarily domestic violence calls, fights, burglaries and other violent crimes - mandate that two officers be dispatched to a scene, while priority three calls - minor traffic accidents, vandalism - require only one officer. Schwertfeger said the policy is being tweaked and should be finalized this week.
"We've trained the officers on our new protocols, and we'll work with dispatchers" this week, he said. "We will be ready to implement our new patrols on Jan. 6."
While the chief is preparing to implement the new patrols on Jan. 6, a legal challenge to the vote process remains pending. The Wheeling Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 38, in a motion filed to throw out the results, is claiming that city leaders made errors in how they put the measure on the ballot. But the FOP's original filing contained a number of errors of its own.
Circuit Judge Ronald Wilson allowed the FOP to correct the errors in its original lawsuit. FOP attorney Stephen Herndon has since filed an amended petition that corrects erroneous dates.
The amended complaint makes the same basic claims that council's actions violated state law and Wheeling's city charter, so the resulting election should be declared invalid.
Wilson's decision came over the objection of City Solicitor Rosemary Humway-Warmuth, who in an earlier filing argued that the correct dates easily could have been found in public documents and suggested the lawsuit, filed in mid-October, was a last-ditch effort by the FOP to cast doubt in voters' minds before the election.
However, Wilson said the FOP's motion seeking to correct its errors should not have caused the city "undue surprise" and thus should be granted.
"The issue raised by the plaintiff is well-known to the city of Wheeling, and therefore they would have actual knowledge of the meetings at which the issues were addressed," Wilson wrote.
The FOP claims council's Aug. 7 meeting, during which members heard first reading of the cruiser ordinance, was in violation of the city charter because it began at noon, not at 7 p.m. as provided by the law that was in effect at that time, and did not follow all the requirements set forth in the charter for special meetings. The city maintains, however, that the meeting was a regular meeting on the first Tuesday of the month and is not subject to the more stringent notice requirements for special meetings.
The lodge also claims council illegally held two readings of the ordinance Aug. 21, which it only may do in the case of a pressing public emergency. City officials deny this happened, calling the FOP allegations "outright falsehoods."