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City manager takes back police funding comment, continues criticism of union director

Columbia City Manager Mike Matthes backed off comments he made last week about supporting future police funding, but rebuffed rebukes against the police union’s director.

Late at Monday’s Columbia City Council meeting, Matthes addressed the ongoing feud between he and Columbia Police Officer Association Executive Director Dale Roberts. Last Sunday, Roberts posted on the police union’s Facebook page a picture memorializing August 9, 2015 as “Darren Wilson Day,” referring to the one-year anniversary the former Ferguson police officer shot and killed Michael Brown. Matthes then called the picture offensive, and said he would not support any ballot measure meant for public safety funding.

The city manager said Monday several police officers contacted him after that, concerned the head of the city’s staff no longer supported the department. A letter from CPOA’s law firm, Schuchat, Cook & Werner, to Matthes said he violated the officers on the executive board’s rights to a collective bargaining representative of their choice when he met with him on August 10 to demand Roberts’ resignation.

“I do not want anything I say to make our officers question the support that they have from me,” Matthes said.Therefore, I hereby take back my statement about not recommending a ballot, and replace it with this:I will work to prepare a public safety ballot to place before the city council in 2017. However, until the association deals with its public relations nightmare, I see no scenario in which it will pass.”

Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser joined in the criticism of Roberts, the director and legal advisor for the police union. She cited other “sexist, racist and divisive” Facebook posts, such as a 2013 post from CPOA likening a “strip search” done by Texas police to “customer service.”

“He has a pattern of posting incendiary comments, claiming his statements are misunderstood, then apologizing for everyone’s misunderstanding,” Nauser said.

“These comments add to the growing and, at times, hostile sentiment towards police officers from all demographics and all regions of our country.”

The discussion came at the same meeting the city council held its first public hearing on the 2016 budget. In it, Matthes pointed out the racial difference in employment rates in Columbia. While the unemployment rate for white people in the city sat below the national average, the black unemployment rate stood at around 15 percent. Matthes said that number would help guide many of his decisions for future budgets, such as funding for early childhood education programs.

First Ward Councilman Clyde Ruffin said the discussion over CPOA’s Facebook post, revolving around an issue in Ferguson that started a national discussion on race, added a “new energy” to the discussion about social equality in Columbia.

“The comments that have been posted on Facebook reveal that it is a problem in Columbia, and people are talking,” Ruffin said. “And so I look at [CPOA’s Aug. 9 Facebook post] as an unfortunate and embarrassing and very sad state of affairs, but when I look at it in a deeper way, I can see that it gives us an opportunity to talk clearly about the problem. Not just theoretically, but it reveals that it is real and it is here.”

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