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Mayor tries to muzzle council on police chief

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

 

The Mayor is trying to silence City Council members from talking about Chief Gemme

Worcester city councilors are laying low after a week of high drama centered around Police Chief Gary Gemme.

While one councilor remains as vocal as ever, suggesting his colleagues may have violated the city charter and made the council look foolish, the loudest voice has come from Mayor Joseph Petty.

In a statement released to GoLocalWorcester, Petty called for silence from “all parties” on what had become a loud and public dispute between some councilors and Gemme. It has been a war of words that brought the city charter, the council’s authority, and even social media into play. 

It culminated late last week in a story on GoLocalWorcester that nine of the 11 councilors wanted Gemme dismissed as chief. Councilors have expressed frustration with the chief's strained relationship with the local print media as well as his personal use of social media. 

Truce

Now, Petty is calling for a truce, of sorts.

“The City Manager and I are working together to address the issues raised by the City Council,” Petty said.  “In the meantime, I am urging all parties to take a step back from discussing this issue publicly. This is not going to be solved through the media or on the City Council floor; it will require leadership by all."

“Clearly, what has transpired over the past week has created a distraction, but we can’t let these issues get in the way of our ability to lead, govern and most importantly, serve the citizens of Worcester.” 

While most councilors were silent, Chief Gemme said he would go along with the mayor.

“I respect the mayor’s request and agree that everyone should take a step back from discussing this issue publicly,” Chief Gemme said.

Ironically, Petty’s statement was e-mailed to GoLocalWorcester almost immediately after a reporter’s interview with District 2 Councilor Philip Palmieri, who minced no words when it came to how he felt the issue needed to be handled.

Joseph Petty, Worcester Mayor

“The mayor has really got to get a handle on the council,” he said of Petty, who is the council chair. “He has to make a public statement on this issue … and how we should move forward.”

When asked whether Petty was involved in the effort against Gemme, Palmieri said, “I’ll let the mayor speak for himself.”

Violation of charter?

Palmieri was even more to the point when it came to just what had transpired over the past several weeks that led to a report that several councilors had been telephoning each other, and talking with City Manager Michael O’Brien, about Gemme’s future. 

“Is it practical that they went to the manager and walked in, while the chief’s father was dying and said if you fire him, we’ll support you?” he said. 

Palmieri stopped short of confirming that happened. If it did, it could violate the city charter, which does not give councilors any power to ask the city manager to hire or fire any personnel. 

Under the charter, all executive powers rest with the city manager. He is the only person who could decide whether to fire or reprimand the police chief. The council holds legislative authority.

“I’ve talked with the city manager,” Palmieri said. 

Asked whether councilors had approached O’Brien, or whether the manager had been gauging support for dismissing or reprimanding Gemme, Palmieri said, “Let’s not ask that question at this point. I’m sure the manager will make a statement.”

GoLocalWorcester has requested a comment from O’Brien through his spokesperson, Christina Andreoli. 

Calls to several other councilors on Monday were not immediately returned.

‘It’s falling apart’

Gary Gemme, Worcester Police Chief

When the phone calls between councilors about Gemme became public, some started changing their tune, Palmieri said, noting published reports that suggested some councilors felt they were misled by the city manager. 

“One constant thing I’ve been hearing,” Palmieri said, “is (some councilors) don’t like the chief. They wouldn’t be sad if he was gone. Now, did they cross a line?”

It was a phone call from GoLocalWorcester, Palmieri said, that prompted him to call “a couple of people.”

“I just didn’t believe it,” he said of reports that nine councilors had been lined up against Gemme. “I started making calls and calls came back saying, ‘No, it’s not nine. It’s falling apart.

“It didn’t make any sense to me. How could we be moving in this direction when, two weeks before, we were praising the police chief and his command staff?”

Social media use

Gemme has earned kudos for his efforts to thwart crime in the city. He has also garnered support in his not-so-quiet campaign against some judges he believes are cutting criminals loose soon after they are arrested. 

What has not gone over well in some quarters is the chief’s seemingly new penchant for using social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook. He has defended it as the quickest way to get information out to the public. 

District 1 Councilor Tony Economou, however, sees it differently, telling GoLocalWorcester recently, “I don’t care for it. I don’t particularly care for any department head tweeting or on Facebook.”

He said he has discussed it with the city manager. 

While the majority of Gemme’s Tweets have dealt with police matters, he has used the forum on more than one occasion to voice a personal opinion or response. It has rubbed some councilors the wrong way.

One Tweet, dated Feb. 14, read: “Disingenuous quote to explain low attendance at community meetings -"either sleeping with bad guys or afraid of retaliation."  

In another, dated March 16, he wrote: “Twitter followers (supporters and the "Others" who may feel "Lost").. I will be back Thursday.. Don't worry free speech is alive and well.”

The city went so far as to tweak its Social Media Policy, reminding officials the use of such sites is “limited to only those departments who have information deemed necessary to disseminate to the public.”

In addition, the policy prohibits defamatory comments or personal attacks. 


The intended purpose of establishing a social media presence is to disseminate City information deemed useful to its citizens,” the policy reads.

Palmieri said he has no issue with any of Gemme’s posts. 

“I don’t think people should be censored,” he said. “Now, do I think he could say just anything? No.”

He noted Gemme’s dissatisfaction with some judges, and said the chief has tweeted about that. 

“Why is it unfair for a police chief to respond back when there are extenuating circumstances you may or my not know of?” he asked. “If you’re going to write something negative about someone, well they should have the opportunity to say something back.”

 

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