In an eleventh-hour switcheroo that appeared to take a vocal crowd of onlookers by surprise, city-county consolidation planners voted Tuesday to recommend the sheriff appoint the police chief.

Little else about the Evansville Police Department and the Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Office would change in the plan put forth by Evansville-Vanderburgh County Reorganization Committee member Chuck Whobrey.

The sheriff’s merit board would be replaced by a nine-member body with appointees from the sheriff, the police department and the consolidated government’s legislative body.

With the 7-4 vote with one absence, the 12-member reorganization committee rejected its public safety subcommittee’s recommendation to consolidate law enforcement into one agency under the sheriff’s direction.

Also out for the time being: Evansville Police Chief Brad Hill’s proposal that his department assume all law enforcement duties if consolidation comes. Hill’s plan would not have merged the police department and sheriff’s office.

Whobrey, who proposed his idea to the subcommittee three months ago only to get nowhere, said Tuesday he was bringing it up again to dispel widespread concerns.

“It removes the idea that if we vote for the subcommittee’s plan, that the Evansville Police Department is going away,” he said. “People have suggested that, and I would suggest that some people have attempted to use it as scare tactics. It’s simply not the truth.

“This would say that the Evansville Police Department is there. We’re changing one thing, and that is who appoints the chief. And if we can’t accept that much change, Lord knows we’re not going to be able to accept any change we have in the rest of this plan.”

As he did before the public safety subcommittee in May, Whobrey pitched his plan as a way to facilitate changes in patrol districts and operating procedures gradually to minimize clashes of two law enforcement cultures.

“This would mean an evolution, not a revolution,” he said. “If we maintained two chains of command then there would inevitably be turf battles. This way the two agencies will make gradual changes that will bring about improved use.”

But the plan didn’t please police officers who lined the walls of the reorganization committee’s meeting room and spilled out into the hallway. Some of them hurled critical and incredulous remarks at committee members who sometimes appeared to be confused about the elements of Whobrey’s motion and the parliamentary niceties of voting.

Backed by applause from officers and their supporters, Hill told the reorganization committee that Whobrey’s idea still doesn’t address shortcomings in Williams’ plan to consolidate law enforcement under the sheriff.

“If the mayor picks every other department head, why would he not pick something of such significance as the person who is over all of law enforcement?” the police chief asked.

Under Whobrey’s plan, Hill said, the head of law enforcement in a consolidated government still could be someone without much training. The Chief of Police must have at least six years experience with the Evansville Police Department.

“So the first thing that that new head of all law enforcement will have to do is go to the police academy to learn how to be a police officer to take all responsibilities for the leadership of law enforcement,” Hill said.

Williams took a more charitable view of the alternative proposal, calling it “palatable” because the head of law enforcement would still be elected. He said it is not significantly different from what he proposed and could eventually lead to consolidation.

Williams did take issue with Hill’s assertion that the sheriff might not have adequate training to head up law enforcement — pointing out, for one, that the mayor requires no certification or training either.

“The people are smart enough to pick who they want to lead their law enforcement agency,” the sheriff said.

Williams also rebutted Hill’s assertion that differences between separately elected mayors and sheriffs could unnecessarily plunge law enforcement into the middle of political squabbles.

“What if the mayor and the president of the Common Council are of different parties? I think that just as big a dilemma, if not larger, that the person that wants to direct the budget and spend money is of a different party than the people that control the money,” he said.

The reorganization committee’s vote Tuesday means its recommendation will be part of the proposal for consolidating city and county governments that will be presented to the County Commissioners and the City Council.

The citizens committee was formed in February as part of the consolidation campaign triggered by a petition signature drive led by the League of Women Voters of Southwestern Indiana.

The committee also voted Tuesday to accept its governance subcommittee’s report laying out a plan for a mayor and 11 Common Council members, eight elected from districts and three elected at-large. It will discuss the completed recommendations of the finance and tax and planning and zoning subcommittees on Sept. 14.

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