Police chief choice brings mixed views
by Gary Roberts, Herald Staff
April 25 2011 at 1304 | 2336 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A sign on 1st Street in downtown Sanford welcomes Bill Lee to his new job.
A sign on 1st Street in downtown Sanford welcomes Bill Lee to his new job.
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With the hiring of a new police chief, Sanford closes the books on a tumultuous time in the police department, ready for a fresh start.

And while city officials are thrilled the city is moving forward, some community members continue to dwell on the past and a persistent rumor that politics played a role in the selection process.

“It’s an opportunity for a new beginning—for the city, the administration and the police department,” said interim City Manager Tom George, who appointed the new chief on Tuesday. “Now we have to give him a chance to do his job.”

Bill Lee, an associate dean at Seminole State College and former captain of the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, was named to head the Sanford Police Department. He will replace acting Chief Steve Harriett, who will return to his position as SCSO deputy chief.

In the past few months, the SPD has been racked by controversy, beginning with allegations of special consideration given to a police lieutenant’s son who was eventually charged in the beating of a homeless man, and ending with Police Chief Brian Tooley forced into retirement in January a month early.

With the arrival of Lee, who will assume his new position on May 8 at a starting salary of $102,299 per year, the SPD will have a police chief with experience and expertise in law enforcement. But he also brings leadership and other intangibles to the job.

“It’s his drive and desire,” George said in assessing the strengths of Lee, a Sanford native who now lives in Geneva. “You’ve got to love the city to serve it well. He’s just a good, honest, respected man.”

Many city officials share this view.

“I believe he is a perfect fit for our department,” Commissioner Patty Mahany said. “He has an outstanding reputation, a strong work ethic and vast experience in all areas of law enforcement.

“He is respected by his peers, and is committed to working with and for the Sanford community. He is a leader, and he loves this town.”

Mayor Jeff Triplett also lauded the selection of Lee, citing his close affiliation with Sanford and the SCSO.

“Seminole County does a lot of work within our city limits and it’s imperative that our new chief keeps a keen eye on ‘best practices’ regarding the departments,” Triplett said.

“Mr. Lee understands the issues within our police department, he understands the changes that need to be made, some of which have already begun, [such as] the community policing model.”

Lee currently is the associate dean of the Center of Public Safety at Seminole State. Previously, he served 27 years with the sheriff’s office, retiring as a captain in 2009.

Former Sanford Mayor Linda Kuhn actually had a hand in hiring Lee—as a deputy sheriff. Kuhn, an SCSO deputy at the time, was on the panel that interviewed Lee. Kuhn also worked with Lee when she was a victim’s advocate with the state attorney’s office.

Perhaps because of this long-held professional relationship, rumors have circulated around town for months that the former mayor had promised the police chief job to Lee—with George, a Kuhn appointee when she was mayor, being the middleman.

Kuhn denies there was any agreement in place.

“Bill Lee never talked to me about the police chief position,” Kuhn said. “I know his reputation, his work ethic and his commitment to Sanford. I believe Bill Lee will do a very good job for the City of Sanford.”

While mayor, Kuhn said as much in an off-handed remark. While this comment was just her opinion, Kuhn wonders if it was the source of the conspiracy theory that refuses to die.

However, the hiring process for the new police chief was opened up to the community in a variety of ways, through focus groups and interviews with a citizens panel and law-enforcement experts. In addition, the current city commission was involved in candidate screening every step of the way.

But the local legend of a backroom deal lives on.

During the selection process, Commissioner Mark McCarty pressed Lee for exact dates on when he first talked to the interim city manager about the police chief job.

McCarty also publicly challenged George on the issue, saying the interim city manager should not be allowed to appoint a new police chief. The commissioner argued that a permanent city manager should be named first, thereby giving the city’s top administrator the opportunity to choose a police chief they will be comfortable working with in the future.

For now, however, McCarty appears willing to put the rumors to rest.

“[Lee] is going to be our new police chief and I support him,” McCarty said. “Now that the decision by Tom George is over with, it doesn’t make any difference at this point.”

Resident Wanda Chandler also heard the rumors linking Kuhn to Lee. And she believes the ultimate selection of Lee validates, if not confirms, her suspicions.

“Out of 178 candidates, how could they pick the local boy down the street who’s never run a police department?” she asked. “He might do a good job, but there will always be a cloud over him because he was picked by Tom George, who was picked by Linda Kuhn.”

For the last four years, Chandler has been the coordinator of a Neighborhood Watch group, serving as a liaison between the police and 250 homes in her community. She said it’s critically important that residents have faith in their police department.

Chandler also questions why the city didn’t wait a few weeks to choose a new police chief, when the permanent city manager was in place. She, and others, brought up these concerns before Lee received the nod.

“The rumors seem to have panned out to be true,” she said.