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City leaders offer differing views on equipment for local law enforcement and citizen services

Mayor Barry Blount and the Americus City Council met to determine the voting items for May on Thursday, May 14, 2021. The meeting, held on Zoom was lengthy and much conversation was held on 3 items: the transit system, the Americus Police Department purchasing police radios and Nelson Brown’s ideas for new projects. Before these topics were tackled, the council went into executive session and upon coming into open session, Blount announced that current Interim City Manager, Diadra Powell, is the sole finalist for the permanent position of city manager.

The contract for the city transit system will be coming up for a vote. The contract is for 5 years. Juanita Wilson questioned if the contract could be renewed on a yearly basis. The bid request indicated the contract would be 5 years in length and must be voted upon as written. Another request would have to be submitted to change the terms. Charles Christmas asked council to make him aware of concerns. Wilson indicated there was only one bid and she would like to assess progress. Darryl Dowdell told Christmas, “I know I don’t have to answer your question, but I want to elaborate on it. This service is horrible. I get complaints all the time about this as well as another contract y’all want to bid out.” Christmas then asked if the interim city manager, Powell, was aware of the complaints, as acting city manager she would prove to be most effective in ensuring all concerns were addressed. Dowdell reported to him Powell wasn’t hired at the time of the complaints. Powell has had the job since March of 2020. Christmas pondered why Powell wasn’t aware of complaints if they were ongoing for the last 14 months. Dowdell said “I still stand on what I said though.” Lou Chase asked for clarification as well, wanting to know if Dowdell had forwarded any of the complaints to Powell, as solutions offered to citizens in real time serve them well. Dowdell then responded, “Mrs. Chase, I am sorry, but I don’t work for Ms. Powell, I work for my constituents.” He further added, “right now I am telling you I have had complaints. And Mrs. Wilson the one who brought it up about the one year, and nobody asking her if she had any. But I’m telling you now, I still stand at doing the one-year contract that Mrs. Wilson put in, thank you for your question though Mrs. Chase.” Christmas reiterated the city is best served if the problems are addressed “as they come up, not all at one time.” Dowdell then reminded Christmas, again, that he doesn’t work for Ms. Powell. Blount stated again the procedure on how the council would legally have to address the issue, which was to take vote and “based on the result of that vote, we will take measures at that time.” The meeting then moved to next item.

A grant benefitting our local law enforcement and thus our citizenry was then discussed. Powell presented the request for public safety radio system for Americus Police Department (APD)and Fire Department. In addition, the grant covers radios for the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO). The COPS grant was awarded to APD for $500,000. In combination with those funds, $1.5 million from a dedicated SPLOST fund is available. However, the entire system comes in below the allowable funding at approximately $1.7 million and well below the $2 million available. Chief Scott then made clear the COPS grant benefits both APD and SCSO, as radios for SCSO were included in the grant funding. Chief Scott then further elaborated on grant requirements of the system. The grant required a minimum frequency (700 MHz) be used. The frequency requirement is considered the public safety frequency, as lesser frequencies run into issues with picking up public devices such as Bluetooth speakers, baby monitors and drive-thru orders. Scott further elaborated the frequency would allow for communication between all agencies who used the public safety frequency. Scott spoke on the benefits to include being able to communicate not only with the multiple neighboring agencies, but with any agency in the country who might have to render aid to the city and county. An example of this would be during a disaster, such as the historic tornado which hit Americus and Sumter County. It would also cover events where other agencies such as Georgia State Patrol, FBI, GBI and other sheriffs’ and police departments come to offer assistance such as was the case during the manhunt following the 2016 officer slayings in the city. Wilson, wanted to know the ease of using the radios to communicate between agencies. Scott reports it is a rather simple task done at dispatch. Dowdell wanted to know about additional equipment. Scott stated the hardware needed to make communication effective was included in the bid as well as the total purchase price. Dowdell then challenged Scott on the requirements of the frequency range. Scott reported that getting into the range required by the grant “was key to this project.” Scott reported the current equipment is over 30 years old and “antiquated.” Scott continued saying, “the frequency we are on is just as problematic as the equipment.” Scott sited an example recently, which he reports he can play if needed, with multiple shots fired in Bessie Mays Circle. When APD arrived on the scene, all the radios picked up a resident’s Bluetooth speaker playing music. All communication between officers as well as dispatch was hijacked by the speaker and in order for the officers to communicate, they “had to get in their cars and park four blocks away in order to be able to use our radio.” Due to public’s use of the frequencies and interference on law enforcement radios, Scott reports, “in the 1990’s the government moved public safety up to the 700 range.” Dowdell then states, “I am not saying you don’t need new equipment, Chief, now we’ll move past that.” He further pressed Scott on maintenance with the current radio systems. Georgia Two-Way is providing the service. Dowdell asked if they were servicing the county, Scott had no knowledge of who the county uses. In reference to Georgia Two-Way, Dowdell questions, “they doing the county, and they right here in Americus, I don’t understand that either.” He then changed the subject to tell Scott all the agencies he knew of that were “digital.” Scott inserted, “this one is digital too.” Dowdell then said, “Go ahead because I like to give a man their time to talk because I be wanting mine, so you go ahead Chief.” Chief Scott then apologized, “I am sorry, I thought you asked me a question.” “No, I’ll tell you what I learned. I also learned, I really want to see the grant that was written because I want to see where it says we got to go through the 700-800 MHz, so if anybody can provide me with that grant, I would love to look over it.” He then further questioned about maintenance. Following that, he questioned the chief about wanting a tower mounting. Scott reported the tower is included in the basic package, and the city could continue to use the water tower, “but we run into the same issues we have now.” Dowdell then questioned the fire department’s benefit from the purchase. Dowdell continued, “I want to speak with council and let them know where I’m at. I’m against this. I want us to bid it out…..I talk to some of the people who had system and I like for council to talk to them.” He then mentioned his desire to have Georgia Two-Way “speak with us too.” Dowdell reiterated his want to review the grant for confirmation they in fact required the “system that Motorola presented us in this pretty book.” He then said he would contact Georgia Two-Way if it was the “will of the council.” When the mayor asked for further comments, Chase stated she appreciated Chief Scott for reaching out “ahead of time asking if I had any concerns or questions, which I did, I had several. And I called him, and he answered everything I needed and I found it very interesting that he said when he applied for this grant, council already knew about it, and that he had letters of support from the county.” She further added that she was highly favorable of doing whatever needed to be done to bring our system “into the 21st century and we are able to communicate with as many as entities as possible.” Kelvin Pless entered the conversation with his intent to move forward, “no way we can stay at the level we are at now.” Blount voiced his “bottom-line.” Blount said it is imperative we get to the public safety frequency and has seen what can happen when the radios do not suffice in an emergency as with the tornado. “We have to give them the tools to do their job.” He then mentioned our first responders deserved the “best system we can get them” and the very truth they are working life threatening work. Brown then mentioned willing to hear from other providers of equipment. Blount indicated he would call Georgia Two-Way. At the mayor’s invitation, the Motorola representative gave several data points on the need for the level of service Motorola provides, including why they should be chosen over other providers. Blount asked a few questions regarding the ability to connect with other law enforcement agencies. The representative spoke to the areas around the state that are using Motorola technology “and the radios could be programmed to work on their radio as well.” Upon Dowdell’s questions regarding a need for a maintenance contract the representative gave his opinion that a maintenance contract was not needed because the typical life of the equipment is between 15 and 20 years. He reports the contract would cost more than the costs associated with making a repair. Blount asked for further questions and comments, Dowdell continued with his thoughts that Georgia Two-Way be given a chance to present their products. The Motorola representative made a point about being able to connect with other agencies using Motorola, as “you are surrounded by Motorola customers.” Dowdell then stated he wanted to ensure financial due diligence in seeking out other providers by hearing from Georgia Two-Way. He also added his thoughts on the need for having a service which allows communication between agencies. “How many times does the police department have to go to another city and get on their frequency? If he needs to reach out to another city like he need the police department in Albany, we do pay for him a cell phone every month.” Chase then offered her opinion on feeling confident in the plan presented. Blount had the Motorola representative explain further points on the access and connectivity Motorola could provide. The connectivity capabilities were explained further to the council. “That is where this system really shines,” offers the Motorola representative. Nelson Brown then expressed his desire to also hear from Georgia Two-Way. Pless said, “in all fairness” he was willing to hear from Georgia Two-Way. Wilson agreed to hearing from Georgia Two-Way. Blount confirmed again he would extend an invitation to Georgia Two-Way to present their service.

About 45 minutes were dedicated to hearing Nelson Brown’s ideas. The first was concerning Brookdale Park. Brown consistently brings the park up for consideration at council. These items have ultimately been voted down. The first item he brought up was paving the park’s parking lot. Chase reminded the council Brown had presented this item last month along with other improvements to the park and the council had voted to decline it. She continues in her thoughts that Brookdale has reached its maximum ability to benefit the city. The second item he brought up was dedicating signage to acknowledge the Americus-Sumter High School 2020 state championship girls’ basketball success. Blount agreed the girls’ team should be acknowledge, however Southland Academy should also be acknowledged as they won the state championship this year. After being reminded Southland is in the city limits, Brown states, “I got no problem with that.” The following idea included researching and procuring pictures of every council member since the city’s founding. He would then want the pictures framed and displayed. After establishing the consent of council was not given to get the project completed, Nelson acquiesced his request. Lastly Brown wants to establish a “memorial garden” for residents who died of COVID-19 in a vacant lot on HW 30. Those members of council who spoke wanted time to be able to conceptualize the project and many sought clarifications on the scope and purpose.

The voting meeting will be next Thursday 5.20.21. To watch the Zoom (zoom.us) meeting, the meeting number is 8909017047 and the password is 399335.