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Upshur DA to refer East Mountain issue to Texas Rangers

By Christina Lane
May 13, 2017 at 10:47 p.m.
Updated May 15, 2017 at 9:21 a.m.

Tammy Hazel works Wednesday on organizing the offices at East Mountain City Hall as an employee with Longview Computer Center attempts to access city computers that were locked up by former city employees.

The Texas Rangers soon could launch an investigation into the city of East Mountain after Upshur County's district attorney said Friday that he is referring an issue to them.

Meanwhile, a document released this past week shows that at the height of the East Mountain Police Department, former Chief Betty Davis had eight peace officers on staff. That's an increase from the four to six officers that East Mountain City Council members have said they were aware of — and it's more than the national average of having 2.3 sworn officers on staff per 1,000 residents in a city.

Ronnie Hill, East Mountain's former mayor and now interim city administrator, contacted District Attorney Billy Byrd on Thursday after he and others found multiple computers inoperable this past week because passwords had been changed.

City Secretary Lanora Hathcock and Assistant City Secretary Whitney Brown submitted resignations that were to take effect Thursday. But on Tuesday, newly appointed Mayor Marc Covington asked the two to leave office immediately. When city officials got into City Hall, Hill said, they found passwords to the city's computers had been changed and were unable to obtain them from either Hathcock or Brown.

The city hired Longview Computer Center to try to repair the computers. The initial Windows password on one computer was able to be by-passed, but the software containing the court system and QuickBooks software that the city uses for its finances had separated passwords that the city couldn't get through, Hill said.

East Mountain City Hall had to shut down for the week because it could not operate, but it is set to reopen at 1:30 p.m. Monday.

Related editorial: Do the right thing for East Mountain.

Hill said he contacted QuickBooks on Wednesday to see if the company could bypass the password. The company remotely took over the computer and, after checking, told him that all of the accounts were corrupted, and it would cost $1,690 to restore the information, Hill said.

The city's second computer, which houses its water billing and accounts system, was taken to Longview Computer Center for technicians to try to recover the data on it, because the computer shut down after its initial login password was bypassed.

The situation is "critical," Hill said, because the city cannot bill its water customers without the information. And without water bills being paid, the city will be short on money coming in and could have to shut down entirely.

Byrd told Hill by email Friday that he was forwarding the issue to the Texas Rangers as well as to Upshur County Sheriff Larry Webb.

Byrd did not immediately return messages Friday seeking comment. The Texas Rangers office in Tyler also did not return calls.

East Mountain resident John Adams said he, too, has been reaching out to higher authorities, seeking an investigation into issues in the city. He first contacted the state attorney general's office, then was referred to the Texas State Auditor's Office. He also had been in touch with the Texas Rangers.

The Texas Rangers and attorney general's office told him, Adams said, that someone else, such as the district attorney, would need to refer the case for them to become involved.

"I was hoping someone from the state would be inclined to jump in and help us," Adams said, adding that his concern is for survival for his town.

Police department

East Mountain City Council members have said the city had as many as four to six officers on its staff or in reserve under the former police chief's tenure.

However, that was only in 2012 and 2013. From 2014 until late February of this year, the city had eight officers, according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. The commission released a document that details the start and end dates of peace officers listed as working in East Mountain. The document does not differentiate between full-time, part-time and reserve officers, so it is unclear how many officers were working and how many may have been on reserve.

According to the document, Davis came on board as police chief June 28, 2012. In 2012, she and three other officers — Matthew Graham, Marcus Delaney and Joshua Parish — worked in East Mountain. In 2013, two more names were added to the city's roster, Clinton Steelman and Marcus Nichols. In 2014, all of them remained on staff and two more names appear on the list — Terry Davis and Richard Eskelin.

By 2015, Steelman left the department and shortly after, John Finney came on board, keeping staff to about eight officers for the year. In 2016, Terry Davis left the department, and Janice Vanover's name appears on the list.

Davis, Graham, Parish, Delaney, Nichols, Eskelin, Finney and Vanover were on staff at the beginning of 2017. Nichols left the department Feb. 27, and Delaney left Feb. 28, the document shows. Davis tendered her resignation March 3 as terms of a settlement in litigation. That same day, Parish, Eskelin, Finney and Vanover are recorded as leaving the department.

Having eight officers on board is well above the national average. According to the Uniform Crime Reporting Program of the FBI, the national average number of sworn officers in 2015 was 2.3 per 1,000 residents in a city. East Mountain has just fewer than 800 residents, meaning that eight officers on staff would amount to about one officer per 100 residents.

Additionally, council members previously indicated they were aware of four to six officers on staff. Even if the extra officers were simply reserve officers, it would violate city code for them to have been hired without the council's knowledge.

According to East Mountain's policies and procedures manual under a section about reserve officers, it states the police chief must provide the mayor, City Council, city secretary and court clerk with a monthly report of all reserve officers serving East Mountain. Along with their names, the policy manual states, the report must also contain their address, telephone number and schedule of hours.

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