Public Sounds Off on City-County Merger

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WOLO) – A public input meeting in Columbia Wednesday was three of five to be held this week regarding a proposed consolidation between the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and the Columbia Police Department. It’s an issue still up for debate.

An informal ‘yes’ vote by a show of hands at the meeting appeared to say it all, but all has not been said on the possible implications of the sheriff leading, directing, and providing oversight for both agencies.

Extra chairs were brought in to accommodate the growing crowd at the Capital Senior Center on Park Circle Wednesday.  The number of citizens, mostly from Columbia’s District Three, swelled to more than one hundred in a matter of minutes.  All of them want to know where city officials stand on the issue.

“If we make any changes in the way we have done things, know that we have a great deal of respect and appreciation for the many fantastic men and women who work for the Columbia Police Department,” said councilwoman Belinda Gergel.

Noticeably absent was the man who would manage a newly formed group.  Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott released a statement earlier in the week, saying he would not attend the public meetings because he did not want to make it appear as though he was trying to sell the idea. “I do not want the focus to be on me at the meetings,” he said in the statement.

However, it was hard for citizens, whether for or against the merger, to detach Lott from the issue.

“He’s shown a lot of moral character.  We need that at the top in our police department,” said one resident.

“We need our chief to work with the sheriff, a sheriff I voted for and like, but we need to keep them separate,” said another resident.

If agreed upon, the sheriff would be top cop for both departments until his term expires in 2012.

“What would happen after that, we don’t know yet,” said Gergel.

Two more public meetings are scheduled for this week.  For details, click here.