The Ashland Board of Aldermen saw an outpouring of support Tuesday night for suspended Police Chief Lyn Woolford.

Five minutes before the start of Tuesday night’s Ashland Board of Aldermen meeting, the room was filled to capacity.


Third Ward Alderman Jeff Sapp announced that no one else would be admitted and anyone who left would be replaced by someone waiting outside and could not return.


The meeting room at the Southern Boone County Fire Protection District Training Center is rated for about 90 people and most were there for one thing – to show support for Police Chief Lyn Woolford, on administrative leave since Feb. 11 because of issues with the city leadership that are only partially known.


The board approved the appointment of Deputy Chief Terry Toalson as interim chief in the open portion of the meeting and heard an update from City Administrator Tony St. Romaine about Woolford’s status during a closed session.


During the open session, the public was given 30 minutes for comments. At one point, about 30 people left to give a chance for those outside to have a say.


Some of the city’s most seasoned constituents and some of the youngest spoke with a single voice – bring Woolford back.


"He’s the best thing that’s happened to our town in 30 years," said T.J. Forck. "I’ve been here my whole life, my parents have been here their whole lives, so I have a pretty good handle on what I am seeing. I just couldn’t stand idly by and watch someone that’s done so much for our community be railroaded."


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Woolford brought national attention to Ashland last year when he won the title America’s Favorite Crossing Guard in a contest sponsored by FedEx and Safe Kids Worldwide. He would work traffic outside Southern Boone schools with a smile in odd and colorful hats, big gloves and other gear designed to get people’s attention.


"Lyn was just super-special to us and we want him back because he brought smiles to people’s faces and with all those funny hats he could make people smile," said Colten Mayse, a sixth grader.


The board – six members elected by wards led by Mayor Gene Rhorer – said little as 14 people came forward to voice their support for Woolford.


The lone response came as Joe Bennett questioned how the decision to place Woolford on administrative leave was reached. He asked if the board was responsible for the hiring and firing of city officers.


"Why did the aldermen not meet to reinstate the chief because his liberties were violated by the mayor, who did something on his own?" Bennett asked.


"Ok, I am going to go ahead and answer that," Rhorer said. "I did not act on my own. There was a meeting. Mr. Kays can take it from there."


"Well, that was a closed meeting, and no action was taken at that meeting," said Jeff Kays, the city’s attorney. "And that’s all I am prepared to say about that."


The closed session took place Feb. 10. No vote was taken and Woolford was placed on administrative leave the next day.


The only detailed statement about why Woolford is on paid leave is in a lawsuit the chief filed Monday accusing Rhorer of acting out of vengeance. On two occasions, Woolford’s attorney Matt Uhrig wrote in the complaint, Rhorer called Woolford directly for help to remove a woman he shared a home with from the residence.


Woolford sent officers, the complaint states, but when they found no threat of violence, he refused to order them to require the woman to leave the shared residence.


"After these incidents, defendant Rhorer’s attitude toward the plaintiff began to sour," Uhrig wrote.


The looming fight over Woolford’s position, said Bill Lloyd, could brand the rapidly growing city and halt its development. Ashland, a community of about 4,000, doubled in size from 2000 to 2010 and this year’s census should show continued strong growth in population.


Three weeks ago, he said, community leaders were meeting with administrators of St. Louis-based Ranken Technical College about opening a satellite school in Ashland, he said.


"I think in that moment we were saying, ‘look at Ashland,’" Lloyd said. "And three weeks later, I am sorry to say, they are looking at Ashland."


Lloyd urged caution and negotiation as the way to resolve the issues between personalities.


"My fear is that whatever comes out of this, if it is bad, lasts more than a year and more than a decade, maybe a couple of decades," Lloyd said.


The police chief and most of Ashland’s appointed city officers, except the city administrator, work on fixed one-year terms with renewals in April. The city administrator’s term is two years.


The mayor has executive authority with the administrator responsible for day-to-day operations.


Under state law, a police chief cannot be fired without a process to prove just cause in a hearing before a city’s governing body.


Rhorer is not seeking a new term in the April 7 election. Second Ward Alderman Richard Sullivan is seeking the job with Dorise Slinker as his opponent.


First Ward Alderman Bryan Bradford is unopposed for re-election, as is Third Ward Alderman Rick Lewis. Two people, Stephen Dullard and Melissa Old, are seeking the Second Ward seat being given up by Sullivan.


Lloyd urged the council to get information out about the situation with Woolford.


"In a small town, everybody knows your business and if they don’t, they just make it up," he said.


Forck asked the council to consider the cost of a long battle with Woolford over his job. It could be expensive for the city, he said.


And noting the large turnout, he told the board that it needed to listen to constituents.


"I can assure you, the community outside this room that showed up tonight and us in here, you aldermen better be on the right side of this," he said. "Because if they don’t, if they’re not, they won’t be sitting in them chairs come next time, I can assure you.


"Just because Ashland holds a grudge."


rkeller@columbiatribune.com


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