July 27, 2010
Three Sedalia police officers filed suit against the city because they believed they were fired without cause and in violation of the city ordinances.
The suit was settled out of court; the officers retained their jobs and received two months’ pay for the time they were out of work. Their firing prompted comments from labor unions and received extensive coverage in newspapers outside Sedalia. The incident also prompted a movement to “return local government to the people.”
The firing occurred in November 1948. The men were reinstated in February. In March, as city elections approached, Harry Hull, president of the Sedalia Central Trades and Labor Union, began an investigation into the workings of Sedalia and its City Council under the leadership of Julian Bagby, who was mayor from 1935 to 1938 and from 1946 to 1950. Some of the results of the investigation were printed by the St. Louis Labor Tribune.
Hull worked with Second Ward Councilman Dick Keenan and discovered “that the mayor should be shorn of some of his power — power that belongs to the City Council but which the mayor has assumed by judicious appointments to various committees of the council.”
The St. Louis Labor Tribune interviewed Keenan after the investigation was under way. Keenan provided several examples of committee appointments he believed were tied to the councilmen’s votes on whether to reinstate the fired police officers.
Councilmen Knox, Studer and Keenan voted in favor of reinstating the officers. All three men were appointed to the Claims and Supplies Committee, with Keenan as chairman. Keenan remarked that he had “an important-sounding title,” but noted that the primary duty of the committee was to make decisions as to whether mail leaving City Hall was sealed and stamped with a three-cent stamp or left unsealed and stamped with a two-cent stamp. His committee, Keenan said, “had about as much to say about how the city is run as the man in the moon.”
Councilman Studer was chairman of the committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, assisted by committee members Keenan and Knox. They had few responsibilities, however, since the parks were under control of the park board, the fire stations under the control of the fire department, and the police headquarters and jail were under the control of the police department.
Councilman Knox chaired the Committee of Printing and Ordinances, assisted by Keenan and Studer. Its job was to supervise printing of city documents; its primary responsibility was to choose which daily newspaper was to be used for the printing of official notices. Since Sedalia had only one daily newspaper at the time, however, little decision-making was necessary.
The council members who voted against reinstating the fired officers, those Hull considered to be “against labor,” included Elmer Sumners, who was councilman pro-tem, a title designating him the unofficial head of the City Council. Bagby appointed Sumners head of the Finance Committee, an important committee whose responsibilities included approving city expenditures.
Sumners was also chair of the Police Committee, a civilian group empowered to oversee law enforcement in Sedalia. Keenan considered it the second most important committee in the city, after the Finance Committee. Sumners was the only member of the Police Committee, since one of the other members resigned, and the other member died. Neither was replaced.
Keenan offered an explanation as to why Sumners had been appointed to such powerful committees. He suggested that Bagby rewarded Sumners with powerful committee appointments because Sumners agreed with Bagby on important matters. Keenan further suggested that Sumners agreed with Bagby in order to protect his two sons and a son-in-law who worked for Bagby at the companies Bagby managed in Sedalia — the Meadow Gold Dairy and the Pepsi-Cola plant.
A staff correspondent for the St. Louis Labor Tribune uncovered another interesting appointment made by Bagby. After the three officers were fired, Bagby recommended that Ted Brown be appointed to the position of police officer to replace Officer Melvin Shoemaker. Police Chief Edgar Neighbors believed Brown’s appointment would “lift the morale of the department.”
Neighbors’ statement raises questions as to the nature of morale in the Sedalia Police Department. Most officers believe that a police department embodies respect for and obedience to city, county, state and federal laws.
Brown, it seems, came to his position with a somewhat checkered past: He had been incarcerated. Brown had been sentenced to a two-year term at the Boonville Training School for Boys, but was paroled. After he broke parole, he was returned to Boonville to complete his sentence. His youthful experience did not seem to have rehabilitated him. In 1935, Brown spent 60 days in the Pettis County Jail, and in 1939, was fined $5 by the city court.
Next week’s column details the finding of Hull’s investigation into taxation and spending.