Welaka mayor’s bid to replace police chief stalls during special meeting

WELAKA — During a special town council meeting to discuss police matters Saturday, Welaka Mayor Gordon Sands recommended approval of a new police chief less than two weeks after the resignation of former chief Walter Melton.

“(Melton’s resignation) is unfortunate, but we must move on,” Sands said. 

Sands’ effort stalled.

Sands requested a motion to approve Michael Porath as Welaka’s new police chief, to the shock of several audience members and at least two council members. 

Town council member Sam McGauley was absent from the meeting, having evacuated his residence prior to Hurricane Irma.

After discussion with town attorney, Allen Scott, Sands said he was seeking to fill the police chief position.

Sands said Porath was the first application received one year ago when the town sought a replacement following the death of its longtime police chief, Casimir “Charlie” Piwowarski.

“The said candidate has remained in close touch with us for over a year,” Sands said. “At all times, he scored no less than second in the applications.”

Sands comments were a far cry from his harsh words for Porath during his finalist interview one year ago.

On Sept. 10, 2016, Sands chastised Porath.

“I’ve got to be very honest,” Sands said. “I’m trying to keep a very open mind. You’ve been lobbied more than any person has every been lobbied for anything in this town.”

During the interview, Sands directed Porath to provide two to three more references who could give more insight into Porath’s character.

“We want a little more depth. We want to see a softer side,” Sands said.

On Saturday, Sands said Porath is the only candidate who lives in the town.

“His experiences are of extremely high caliber,” Sands said. “His employment has consisted of two employers.”

When recommending Porath on Saturday, Sands said the city tried hiring a young chief, but now needed to move forward with someone already living in Welaka.

Town council member Jamie Watts said he was not prepared to move forward with a motion.

“We have a council member missing, and I would like a chance to think about this a little bit more before you do it,” Watts said. “This has been thrown at me at the last minute, and I can’t make a motion.”

After Sands requested a motion to hire Porath, Putnam County Sheriff’s Office Col. Joe Wells requested to speak.

Watts said he wanted to hear from Wells as a representative of the sheriff’s office, which is currently providing law enforcement services to the town.

“When you got around to hiring Chief Melton, we developed a very good working relationship with him,” Wells said.

Wells said under Melton’s tenure as chief, the sheriff’s office’s response to calls in Welaka decreased 48 percent.

“We were responding in Welaka less,” Wells said.

Wells said he and Sheriff Gator DeLoach received between 30 to 40 phone calls from Welaka residents who wanted a representative to speak at the town council meeting about law enforcement.

Sands said Melton was full of exciting ideas and his personality seemed to fit the town.

However, Sands said, “Complaints began pouring into town hall wondering if we even had a police department.”

Sands said he met with Melton several times on his lack of visibility and “thought we were all on the same page.”

Sands said he was also concerned Melton took “extra long lunches” and was leaving town during his shift.

Melton’s schedule, Sands said, was adjusted to eliminate 12-hour shifts.

Watts made a motion to schedule a workshop to allow residents an opportunity to speak.

Council member Louis Peronard said he wanted to discuss what happened with Melton first.

“This town hired a young, ambitious man and put him in this job on 12-month probation,” Peronard said. “He did any number of things for this town, and we stiffed him. I am disappointed in my contribution.”

Peronard said he felt Melton was micromanaged, including having someone unlock a gas pump for patrol vehicles.

“That’s ridiculous, the police chief having to be subjected to that,” Peronard said.

Council member Willie Washington said a young chief has “big ideas” about the town.

“These new guys don’t want to do what the mayor tells him to do,” Washington said. “They got what they wanted and they left.”

Watts’ motion to hold a workshop passed 4-0.  Sands initially cast a dissenting vote, but changed it after Washington gave a yes vote.

Welaka Town Council will meet 5:30 p.m. Tuesday after the regular meeting was canceled Sept. 12 due to Hurricane Irma recovery. On the agenda, police matters are listed as “To Be Announced.”

A date for the workshop was not set.