BELDING — A Tuesday afternoon rally for a fired Belding police officer culminated in a single message to the Belding City Council that night.
“Bring Coop back.”
That was the message printed on more than 100 signs carried by supporters of Jason Cooper, who was terminated from his position after an alleged incident took place on Oct. 11 at the Grattan Irish Pub in Grattan Township.
Tuesday night’s Belding City Council meeting was the most attended in several years, with supporters crowding into the central hall of the Pere Marquette Depot, which seats 40 people, not including council members and city staff.
The majority of supporters were unable to enter the main chamber, but they continued to express their support by waiting in the main lobby and standing outside of the building, with several supporters holding their signs up against the windows of the main chamber.
Dan Blunt of Belding acted as a spokesperson representing Cooper’s supporters. At the council meeting, Blunt expanded on the notion that many residents want to see Cooper reinstated, believing that the decision to terminate him from the department was not the correct choice.
“We’re here asking that officer Cooper get his job back,” Blunt said. “He’s a man of honesty, character, dignity, professionalism. And our community is here to show that support. I hope it is recognized.”
According to the Kent County Sheriff’s Office, Cooper was involved in an altercation at the pub with several other individuals that escalated to a physical altercation. No charges were pressed against Cooper or anyone else involved, but after an internal investigation by the Belding Police Department, Cooper was fired.
A close friend of Cooper, Blunt was also involved in the altercation at the pub and was knocked unconscious. On Tuesday, Blunt told City Council members Cooper is too important to the city to stand by and do nothing.
“He’s been an asset to our community for 44 years and an asset to our police force and our citizens for 17 (of those years),” he said. “We understand that there are legalities (in place), arbitration and whatnot. It’s a sad situation, but we hope that you truly do recognize and understand the support that officer Cooper has.”
Blunt pleaded with council members, asking them to work to reinstate Cooper to the police department.
“He’s Coop,” he said. “Everybody knows Coop. He could be a mascot, just get him a hat. He’s that type of person. He’s an upstanding officer and citizen and he does a great job. Nobody’s perfect, but he knows right from wrong and he knows what to stand up for. He’ll continue to do that, given the chance, for the citizens of Belding.”
Blunt informed council members that a petition to reinstate Cooper with more than 400 signatures will be delivered to City Hall, with more signatures expected to be collected.
Near the conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting, council members expressed their thoughts on the issue.
Councilman Jerome Lallo, who was elected Nov. 5 and sworn into office at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, said he was moved by the visible support for Cooper.
“I’ve only been a member (of council) a short time, but I’ve seen this community come together,” Lallo said.
Mayor Pro Tem Tom Jones said he was also pleased with the community support.
“I’d also like to thank everybody for their support of Jason,” Jones said. “I’ve known him for a long time. I knew his dad back when he was a police officer and I know Marci (Cooper’s wife) and her family quite well. It’s good to see the community come forward and support this issue.”
Councilman Mike Scheid shared a similar sentiment.
“Everyone here who’s in support of Jason, it shows some real spirit,” Scheid said. “Just keep at it. That’s all I can say.”
Mayor Ron Gunderson echoed Lallo’s comments, asking that everyone be patient with the situation regarding Cooper.
“I want to commend those that are doing what they are doing and showing their support,” Gunderson said. “Thank you all for doing what you are doing. Let this process run its course.”
A difficult decision
City Manager Meg Mullendore said the decision to terminate Cooper was reinforced and carried out by her after she met with Police Chief Dale Nelson. She said the process has been difficult, but thorough.
“This was not a haphazard decision, nor was it easy, no personnel issue ever is,” Mullendore said. “There is a process that will be utilized. Unfortunately we have a job to do and sometimes part of that process is making decisions that aren’t necessarily popular. I want you all to know that it’s not something that was easy and it does weigh heavy.”
Mullendore thanked everyone for displaying their support for Cooper.
“I just want to say that Jason is a very lucky individual to have the support that he has,” she said. “We’re very limited on what we can say based upon the laws that are out there that protect things relative to personnel issues, but he’s very fortunate to have such a great network of support.”
After Tuesday’s meeting, Nelson told The Daily News the decision to terminate Cooper was difficult, but ultimately had to be done.
“We had our information and we had to act on it,” Nelson said. “There were some policy violations that took place. It was not an easy decision to come to this point. Yes, (Cooper) is a friend, and that makes this even more difficult. It’s a small department and you get to know each other, even as the boss. It makes it that much more difficult when you have to separate business from social, but this is a business decision.”
Termination vs. suspension
Nelson said though many residents said Cooper should have only been temporarily suspended from the department, that was not an option after finishing the investigation.
“Because of the policy violations that took place in the information from the original complaint, that’s what caused the dismissal,” he said. “There’s an integrity issue here that we have to address. We as policemen, it’s 24 hours a day. We’re held to a different standard, even when off-duty. When you are off-duty, you are expected to act at a professional level.”
Though Blunt requested that council members look into hiring Cooper back onto the department, the reality is there is nothing they can do.
“The bottom line is that, council is responsible for policy and legislative decisions,” Mullendore said. “In the council-manager form of government, they hire a professional manager who overseas all administrative functions of which council is not to be involved in.”
Mullendore said decisions to terminate or hire city employees are made by department heads and herself.
“Council has no oversight or say in administrative decisions relative to staff,” she said.
As for Cooper, his attempt to return to the department will eventually move forward in the form of an arbitration hearing.
“Through the collective bargaining agreement, we have a process when discipline is imposed that union members have to utilize if they are in disagreement with it,” Mullendore said.
Mullendore said it is a four-step process.
Step one, in which verbal discussion with the Police Officer’s Labor Council took place, resulted in a denial by Nelson.
Step two, in which a written response challenging the decision was sent to Nelson by the labor council, was also denied.
Step three, in which the labor council addressed the issue with the city manager, was officially denied by Mullendore.
That now results in step four, in which the arbitration process begins.
Mullendore said currently both sides are working to find a mutual arbitration officer.
“We’re in step four,” Mullendore said. “We have received the paperwork from the federal mediation group. We are now working on establishing our ranking for the various arbitrators we were presented with.”
Once an arbitrator is determined, a date will be set for the arbitration hearing.
The arbitrator will view facts of the case from both sides and evaluate the merits of both sides. The arbitrator will then make a determination based on the facts of the situation.
“To say that the union and the city are not talking is not accurate,” Mullendore said. “We are having some dialog relative to some steps that could be taken, but I am not at liberty to discuss those.”
Picketing City Hall
The decision to organize a group to picket city hall was made through a Facebook group that saw as many as 2,000 supporters within 48 hours of the group’s creation.
Belding resident Amber Reeves was one of the group’s organizers and said the goal of the picket was to show support for Cooper while also making council members aware of that support.
More than 100 supporters joined the effort during a period that began at 2 p.m. and lasted until the beginning of Tuesday’s council meeting at 7 p.m.
Supporters marched up and down Bridge Street throughout the afternoon in a silent effort, receiving both support in the form of honking from passing motorists, and some complaints, though minimal, from motorists who shouted through their open windows.
“Jason has not asked us to do this, we’re just down here supporting him, supporting the fact that we want to see him get his job back,” Reeves said. “We’re not attacking the city or city council on a personal level.”
Reeves stressed that the effort was a focus on Cooper.
“Today’s focus needs to be about Jason,” she said. “In a sense, we are Jason’s voice today. As his friends and family, there is nothing more we can do for him. It’s a legal matter at this point. This is our way of showing support.”
Belding resident John LaClear joined in the picket briefly before eventually watching from his truck after experiencing pain from walking.
“I feel that Jason wasn’t given the opportunity that he should have been given,” LaClear said. “I admit how he handled the incident wasn’t correct, but a person can only take so much hassle. To terminate his employment, I don’t feel that they should have done that at that point.”
LaClear said he felt if supporters of Cooper didn’t visibly show their support, they would be failing the standards of Belding residents.
“I think we’d be lax as citizens if we didn’t come down here and do something,” he said. “I think he’s one of the best police officers they have now. He’s a nice guy, straight up. He doesn’t play favorites. I just like him.”
Decision not to move meeting
At the conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting, Belding resident Art Ring entered the main chamber and addressed council members with his displeasure that the meeting was not held at a location that could have accommodated the dozens of people who were denied entry to the meeting due to limited space.
The meeting began at 7 p.m., however, by 6:30 p.m., the main chamber was already filled to capacity, leaving anyone else wishing to attend the meeting standing either in the central hall of the Pere Marquette Depot, or outside the building.
Once the meeting began, Nelson closed the door to the main chamber, which Ring said irritated those who could not be present for the meeting.
“I didn’t get here at 6:30 p.m., so I’m out there not hearing a stinking thing,” Ring said. “Why don’t one of you guys come out there to the people who didn’t hear it and say ‘here’s what’s going on?’ Don’t we have the right to know what’s going on?”
Ring expressed to Mullendore that the council should have had the foresight to move the meeting to a larger location.
“You knew this was going on long before today, you knew that,” Ring said in reference to the large number of picketers who attempted to attend the meeting. “We’ve heard for two, three days that people were going to picket today.”
According to Mullendore, pursuant to the Open Meetings Act, the city cannot move the location of the city council meeting without publicly posting the change 18 hours in advance.
Mullendore informed Ring that no formal request to have the meeting moved to another location was submitted to the city, so there was no obligation to hold the meeting at another location.
“We never received a formal notification stating that a group was (picketing),” Mullendore said. “We have certain laws that we have to follow relative to the open meetings act that are established by the state.”
Mullendore added that there were no agenda items to be discussed at Tuesday’s meeting in regards to officer Cooper.
“There was nothing on the agenda relative to this, there was going to be no discussion relative to this,” she said. “It was simply to hear what the spokesperson was going to say.”
Unsatisfied, Ring said he still felt the city should have anticipated the large amount of people that would be at the meeting because of the potential of picketers.
Mullendore said that they had been told there would be picketers at two of the previous council meetings, but there were none, adding that the council cannot make decisions “based on speculation”
“To me it seems like you guys could have done something to accommodate the people,” Ring said. “There were numerous people out there and they don’t know what was going on. It’s heresy.”
Mullendore suggested that in the future, someone provide the city with official notice.
“If I can make a recommendation, if such a situation like this is going to occur in the future, if we can have ample notice, more so than the 18 hours, in a formal document stating the request to move the venue, that’s something that can be addressed,” she said. “But when we don’t have that formal notification from any group or any entity that is planning to do something (of this magnitude) we can’t go by heresy. We can’t go by speculation. We need specific notification of intent so we can adjust accordingly.”
When asked if the meeting could have been rescheduled after realizing that the Pere Marquette Depot would not be accommodating to the large amount of people, Mullendore said that was not an option that was considered because there was no official city business on the agenda in regards to the picketers’ cause of supporting Cooper.
“The issue is, there was nothing on our agenda relative to (Jason Cooper),” she said. “These meetings are to conduct the city business. The public is always allowed to comment on non-agenda items, but for us to move a meeting when it’s not an agenda item interferes with the council actually being able to do its business.”