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Palmetto commissioners OK new police chief

PALMETTO — After a long discussion about salary and questions about the process, the City Commission unanimously approved Monday the mayor’s appointment of Rick Wells as the new police chief.

Wells, a lieutenant with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, will replace Garry Lowe, who was with the Palmetto Police Department for 29 years, the last nine as chief.

Lowe, who did not attend Monday’s special meeting, said at a press conference last week he was retiring after “much thought and consideration.”

Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant read a statement at the meeting that her decision to nominate Wells without soliciting applications was no different than previous mayors’ actions in replacing a department head.

Bryant said she felt it was important to pick someone who would assure a successful transition and that she was exercising her executive powers outlined in the charter.

But several people in the audience said they would have liked to have seen a more open process, and at least one commissioner, Alan Zirkelbach, agreed.

In a Bradenton Herald report last week, Bryant said she explored three possible candidates, but chose Wells, who is the son of former Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells, from her personal knowledge of him.

“I’ve lived here my whole life and I kind of have a handle on who and where and so forth,” she said previously, “but I feel very comfortable with the selection.”

Bryant said Monday her decision process was questioned in the Herald and compared to Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston hiring a consultant to help pick a police chief from more than 100 applicants.

In the end it was only Poston and the consultant in a room, she said.

“The only difference was I didn’t have a consultant,” Bryant said.

But Zirkelbach said that although he supports Wells for the job, he thought about the process and it was something that the commissioners need to discuss.

“I agree we don’t need a consultant,” he said, “but in the future we should look at having people apply (for positions).”

Of the 13 people who addressed the commission, most of them supported Wells as a candidate, even if they questioned the procedure.

Bryant requested Wells be appointed for the remaining 2 1/2 years she has to serve in her term and for the same salary as Lowe’s, which City Clerk Jim Freeman said was $87,569, although city records indicate the gross annual salary totals $94,135.

Commissioner Tamara Cornwell, citing the commission’s role to be stewards of the city’s finances, said she was not ready to support paying Wells the same salary as outgoing Chief Lowe.

“My concern is that Lt. Wells does not have the years of service (with the city),” Cornwell said, pointing out that he will be paid more than the city public works director, Alan Tusing, who has more than 30 years with the city, and the city clerk, who has been with the city for five years.

Commissioner Brian Williams said a city police chief is different than other department heads in that he oversees a paramilitary operation.

For Commissioner Mary Lancaster, after speaking briefly with Wells over the weekend, she was confident he could do the job, but gave him a warning.

“I represent the area with a lot of gang activity and crime,” Lancaster said, “and I will call you and complain.”

The city commissioners approved the term and the salary Bryant requested.

After the meeting Wells said he felt great about the appointment and was anxious to get started on his new assignment.

He said he wanted the police officers in the department not to be worried about his appointment.

“When you have change, there’s a lot of anxiety,” Wells said. “I want them to understand there will not be a lot of major changes that will affect them.

“Any changes will be positive,” he said.

Well has 26 years experience as a law enforcement officer, including 21 years with the Florida Highway Patrol.