Chalfant: Officers' firings draw plenty of attention

July 20, 2010

In November 1948 when Police Chief Edgar Neighbors fired three policemen for “not cooperating,” he set in motion a series of events that drew statewide attention to Sedalia.

Labor unions raised questions about why the men were fired, but not until union members had taken sides with or against the fired men, and labor organizations had quarreled about who had the right to represent the men.

The City Council became involved, asking who exactly had the right to fire a city employee. And finally the men themselves asked whether non-cooperation was a justifiable reason for dismissal or whether they should be reinstated and paid for the time they were not working. All these questions caused Sedalians to wonder what was going on at City Hall.

In early December, Second Ward Councilman Dick Keenan asked City Attorney Fred Wesner to investigate “how police officers are hired or removed.” On Dec. 20, 1948, Wesner delivered his report to the City Council. According to Section 664, Revised Ordinances of the City of Sedalia, 1912, “(A)ny member of the police department can be discharged by the mayor at will on the adoption of a resolution providing for such dismissal by a majority vote of the members of the Council.”

Obviously, Neighbors’ action violated the City Code. After Wesner gave his opinion, Keenan moved that the men be reinstated and that they be paid any money due them for the time they were off work. Herb Studer, Fourth Ward councilman, noted that on the basis of the city ordinance’s provision that the mayor and City Council were together responsible for firing police officers, the men must be reinstated at once.

The discussion then moved into the realm of loyalty. Second Ward Councilman Elmer Sumners, himself a labor leader who helped organize the local machinists and the maintenance-of-way unions, sided with the city, and voted to sustain the men’s dismissal. He was unhappy that the men had not come to him to resolve the issue instead of going to the union.

Third Ward Councilman Ira Knox responded by suggesting that the move to support the city in its firing of the men was “a slap at labor.”

First Ward Councilman Virgil Corson noted that he “had investigated the whole matter very thoroughly from many angles.” He noted that the “mayor and police chief should be recognized as the administrative heads of the department,” a statement that contradicted the city ordinance, and was thus not appropriate.

When the vote was taken, Corson voted not to reinstate the officers. Councilman Virgil Herrick also voted against the men’s reinstatement, as did Elmer Sumners. Keenan, Studer and Knox voted in favor of reinstating the men. This left the council in a tie to be broken by Mayor Bagby. The mayor, who had appointed Neighbors to his position, voted against reinstatement, breaking the tie and assuring that the officers were indeed fired.

On the afternoon of Dec. 22, 1948, the three officers — George Maness, Melvin Shoemaker and John Neitzert — filed suit against the city. The men asked to be paid for the period from Nov. 20 to Dec. 20. Maness requested $180, a month’s salary for a desk sergeant. Shoemaker and Neitzert each asked for $170, a month’s pay for a patrolman.

The men’s attorney, George Miller, explained the suit. Neighbors had no power under the city ordinances to dismiss the men. As a result, they remained employees of the city and should be paid. Only, said Miller, when “the City Council asks to dismiss them” would the men be fired.

Between Dec. 14 and Dec. 22, The Democrat printed daily reports on the men’s dismissal, the labor unions’ haggling, and the men’s suit. It remained strangely silent during January and February. On March 14, 1948, the St. Louis Labor Tribune printed an article about the resolution of the case, which had been settled out of court. Otto Herrmann, a representative of Missouri State Council No. 27 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, negotiated a settlement that “partially vindicated” the police officers and cost the city $1,080.

Each of the men received two months’ wages. Herrmann distributed the checks to the men, whose photographs appeared in the St. Louis Labor Tribune. Accompanying the photo were two articles discussing the way Sedalia’s city government was run. Next week’s column focuses on issues raised by Harry Hull, president of the Sedalia Central Trades and Labor Union, and about Mayor Bagby’s “dominance” of Sedalia through “judicious committee appointments in the City Council.”