The city of De Soto received a one-two punch in its leadership this week with the firing of City Manager David Dews coming on the same day as the resignation of Police Chief Rick Draper.
The City Council, meeting in closed session Monday evening after approving the city’s 2017-2018 budget in open session, voted 5-0 to terminate Dews’ employment “effective immediately,” said Mark Bishop, the city’s legal counsel. Bishop refused to comment on the reasons for the dismissal, citing confidentiality in personnel matters.
Dews, 58, of De Soto did not respond to a request for comment left on his cell phone. He had served as city manager since 1999 and was paid an annual salary of $111,093.
De Soto Mayor Larry Sanders wouldn’t talk about why Dews was fired either.
“It’s a decision we didn’t take lightly,” Sanders said on Tuesday. “I’m not at liberty to tell you (more). It’s just a situation that sometimes you have to deal with.”
Sanders said the city will continue normal operations with city clerk Ann Baker and others taking on additional duties as needed while the city searches for a new manager.
“We are in good hands and we’re confident with the people we have on staff,” he said. “The council will help make decisions and we’ll carry on.”
Earlier on Monday, Draper, 37, of De Soto turned in his letter of resignation, effective Oct. 31.
In announcing his departure, Draper cited serious concerns with compensation for the city’s police and fire department personnel. The city included a 50-cents-per-hour pay raise for all 44 of the city’s employees in the 2017-2018 budget, which takes effect Nov. 1.
That will raise pay for the city’s 12 full-time police officers to $15.50 per hour. Draper, who joined the De Soto Police in 2004 and has served as chief since January 2016, is paid an annual salary of $47,500.
“Morale is at an all-time low and the powers to be in City Hall must put emergency services at the top of the list,” Draper wrote. “The city must decide if emergency services is a priority and if it is, they must find additional funding services to compensate these men and women for the job they do.”
Draper added that the city faces “a critical moment” on this issue.
“Fast decisions have to be made, otherwise we risk not being able to provide the essential services for our community,” he said. “The time for talk has passed. The time for action is now.”
Draper, who said he will become an apprentice funeral director for Mahn’s Funeral Home, also wrote that he plans to seek a seat on the City Council in the April 2018 election “so that I can help progress our city and our (police) department while realizing the most important asset we have is the people who keep the wheels spinning at the city.”
De Soto is not alone among municipalities struggling to increase police pay, Draper noted, a point Sanders echoed.
“We have financial constraints here,” Sanders said. “That’s a concern throughout the county and state about police officers’ pay. We can pay them what we can afford to pay them; they know that. We try to give them the best benefits we possibly can.”
He added that he and the council are searching for solutions to the problem.
“I’m hoping that we can do some things and give our employees more money and make it (better) for them to stay here and not bail out and go to Festus and the county,” Sanders said. “It’s just a situation that we’ve got to take a real good look at it again. We just approved the budget and the pay classifications last night. We’ll see what we can do. We’re working on their benefit package with our broker.”
Sanders noted that the city surveyed its employees and 95 percent said they would rather receive better benefits than a pay increase.
He also said some of the police officers who recently left the city’s force told him that pay was not the reason they left. The department is currently short two officers, not counting the departing chief.
As for the process to find a new manager, Sanders said the city will go through the Municipal League and other groups to post the job and identify qualified candidates.
He said there is no timeline or target date for making the hire.
“We’ll post it when we’re ready,” he said. “Right now we’re running smoothly as usual. We’ll take our time because we want to get some good candidates. When it happens suddenly like this you can’t just reach in a hat.”