Simpsonville City Council meetings are devoid of drama, typically. But Tuesday's night meeting was anything but typical.
The layers of drama, and the players, were manifold: there was aggrieved former police chief Keith Grounsell, an angry and frustrated crowd there to rally in his favor and demand his reinstatement — and a vote following an executive session that rescinded Monday's suspensions of Assistant Police Chief Colleen O'Neil and Fire Chief Wesley Williams, whose alleged affair is central to the mess now embroiling the city's police department and city government.
"This is really lame and sad, and goddamned infuriating," said a supporter of Grounsell's, just one of around 300 who assembled at City Hall in support of the popular police chief, who was fired by City Council in a controversial 5-2 vote on Dec. 28. after just three months on the job.
As the night's spectacle unfolded, a police officer who supports Grounsell told Patch: "It's kind of embarrassing we have to go through this."
SEE THE ATTACHED VIDEO OF GROUNSELL SUPPORTERS SLAMMING CITY COUNCIL
The throng that assembled at City Hall in support of Grounsell had hoped, perhaps, to end the evening with his reinstatement. Many carried hand-made signs, or wore t-shirts that stated, "Stand Up and Fight the Good Ole Boy System." Several others wore strips of blue painters tape on their clothing symbolizing the "thin blue line," a colloquial term for police forces.
Dave Thomas, of Mauldin, who said he has known Grounsell "since he was knee-high to a grasshopper," was more reticent about the possibility of reinstatement. "With a little prayer, maybe it will change," he said outside City Hall.
"He came with a vision and other officers fed off that," Thomas said of Grounsell, who enjoyed wide support from his officers. "The police department was so degraded over the years and was finally getting some respect, and now it's all out the door. The [officers] just felt like they were dumped when he was let go."
Missy Johnson, of Simpsonville, has known Grounsell since middle school, she said. Grounsell's firing, she said, "came as a bit of a shock."
"I don't know if it's big city politics, or small town politics," she said, "but I would really like to see the Council represent the city better than they do."
Among supporters, any hopes of redress were quickly dashed. Many who had hoped to get inside the Council meeting were shut out, as the city fire marshal locked the doors once the Council chambers had reached its capacity of 109 people. That angered many stuck out in the cold, despite the fact that Council member Geneva Lawrence had requested the meeting be moved to a bigger venue, to no avail.
And those who were able to get inside the chambers were angered further when they weren't allowed to speak during the public comment period, because they were told they hadn't signed up beforehand as required.
That anger was only compounded when the Council emerged from an executive session following the public portion of the meeting and voted 5-2 (with Council members Geneva Lawrence and Sylvia Lockaby voting against) to rescind recent suspensions of personnel in the police and fire departments.
Despite prodding from the crowd and the media, Mayor Perry Eichor refused to say whether the move involved Williams and O'Neil. Lawrence, however, told Patch that it did.
The alleged affair between the two, revealed publicly by Grounsell on Monday, was a central issue in Grounsell's firing, the former chief said. Grounsell said he was repeatedly forbidden from disciplining O'Neil over the alleged relationship for fear of a lawsuit on the behalf of O'Neil, who had filed an EEOC complaint against the city after she was passed over for the chief's job in favor of Grounsell.
Eichor told Patch he wished he could say more on the decision, and said that more would be divulged on the matter in coming days. Grounsell said it could either mean the pair were being reinstated, or that they planned to voluntarily resign.
"That's the only two options I can think of," he told Patch.
Regardless, the news created a palpable sense of unease among many of the police officers in the room. A majority of the force's sworn officers and staff had threatened in October to resign because of O'Neil, stating her presence contributed to the department's low morale and made it difficult for Grounsell to reform the department and do his job as chief.
Despite being stymied earlier in the night, the crowd got its pound of flesh at the end of Tuesday's meeting. With the crowd growing more raucous, Council member Sylvia Lockaby asked to suspend the rules and let the crowd finally speak.
And speak they did. With gloves off.
One man who was trained by Grounsell in law enforcement and worked with him in Afghanistan told Council, "[Grounsell] has the most ethics I have seen in my 10 years of law enforcement. I've never seen another cop that was a cop's cop like that man."
"And, I sat in a godforsaken country called Afghanistan with this man where he served this country…as a police officer training those police. You say he doesn't have the supervisory skills? He was my supervisor, and I didn't have a problem with him and never questioned him. I've seen U.S. Army colonels, generals, commend this man on his ethics, his morals and his work values."
Much of the crowd's abuse was directed at Mayor Eichor, who has said previously Grounsell was "not a good fit. In a public statement released before the meeting, Eichor said Grounsell did not have the skills to be police chief and that he regretted voting to hire him.
A woman, a 50-year resident of Simpsonville, told Eichor, "I'm so ashamed I voted for you. You are the worst thing that's ever happened….
"I'm just going to be brief, I'm ashamed of you, you, you, you, and you," another woman said, jabbing her finger at the five Council members who voted to fire Grounsell. "And you [Mayor Eichor] I hope when you go to bed tonight, I hope you don't sleep not one single bit. I hope you don't get a bit of sleep for the rest of the time in this seat you're sitting in. I don't want you to sleep anymore. Anymore. I'm sorry, I'm a Christian woman — but damn you."
"This man behind me, I've attached him grow up," said one man. "I am proud to have him in this town. It's an honor every time I've ever seen this young man. You were some lucky people to have this man here, but I don't know how he even wants to look at you…. We've lost a good man that could help this town."
"Keith has really, really been a good friend to me," said another woman, her voice steadily rising in passion and pitch.
"I lost my husband. I've been through domestic abuse. If it wasn't for him…I wouldn't be alive today," she said. "That man has really gone out of his way to make sure his men look out for people who have domestic abuse…. If it wasn't for him and his family I don't know where I would be… So you better take a look at what you have here, because you have something great here. He can do a lot for this city. A lot. I lived many years in New Jersey, but I've never seen anything like I've seen here today in South Carolina."
Said David Southers, who organized the rally: "Why don't you just reinstate him, and we'll go home."
Grounsell himself stormed to the podium near the end, and reiterated his demand for a hearing into his firing.
“You’re going to regret your decisions, I promise you,” Grounsell told Council.
“Why wasn’t I given a public hearing?” Grounsell asked. “I want a public hearing, and I demand a public hearing because I’m going to air all your dirty laundry.”
Following the meeting, Grounsell said he was heartened by the massive and passionate show of support. The outpouring of support wasn't lost on his wife, Reese, either. The situation "has been stressful, very stressful," she said. But the support from the community has been amazing and gratifying, she said, as she seeks to bolster her husband while also raising their three young children.
"It's been overwhelming the support that we've gotten," she said. "I never expected this many people would be behind us. I'm just really thankful. That's what has helped pull us through."