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Bluffton police chief's future up to council

BLUFFTON, Ohio - The future of the village police chief has been turned over to the six-member village council that will act as a jury during an upcoming hearing.

Police Chief Reid Foust, 37, was suspended without pay Jan. 2 after being accused of taking a department television set home for personal use. Mr. Foust, who has been the village chief for the last decade, also was demoted to patrolman, a position he will assume after returning to work after the 15-day suspension.

But the chief appealed the charges and so will have his day in court - so to speak.

“The way it's been explained to me is that it's a quasi-judicial process,” said Council President Kurt Geisheimer. “The mayor is like the prosecutor, and the council acts as a jury. And based on what's presented at the hearing, we'll render our verdict.”

Mayor Peter Schwager recommended the suspension and demotion after conducting a nearly four-month investigation. He charged the chief with taking the television set as well as other minor violations of departmental rules, such as smoking in the patrol cars and failing to wear his bulletproof vest.

Although the charges mean a demotion of rank, the chief will keep his $38,307 annual salary.

A town of about 4,000 people, Bluffton spans about four square miles on the border of Allen and Hancock counties. A mix of senior citizens, who are frequent visitors of the local senior center, and students from nearby Bluffton College can be found milling around the small downtown.

Once frequently seen on Bluffton's streets, Mr. Foust has been keeping to himself lately, residents said. Except for an appearance at a recent village council meeting, the chief has stayed away from the police department and spoken little in public about the incident.

The chief could not be reached for comment.

Dan Koontz owns a local butcher shop, where town residents go to get fresh meat and share stories. But the 50-year-old owner of Town & Country Meats on Main Street said Mr. Foust's demotion is not something he's heard a lot about.

“I think people are just waiting to see what happens,” he said. “I think there is concern, but most people are taking the stance that they will let people do their job and see where the chips fall.”

Former Councilman Kern Katterheinrich, 86, said he believes the mayor might have acted too quickly. “I think he should have discussed it more with council,” he said. “Then maybe all this reaction in the news could have been avoided.”

Mr. Schwager could not be reached for comment.

Village Administrator Steve McFadden said council was included in the discussion when Mr. Foust was first suspended. However, that was in violation of state procedure, which gives council the job of acting as the jury.

The mayor must begin the process again by filing the charges with the council clerk. Clerk David Stiner had not received the charges by late yesterday.

Mr. McFadden added that to date, the chief has received a lot of public support.

“From what I understand, he took the TV home to store it because it was being stored at the police station in a garage that was leaky and damp,” he said. “And in fact, some are looking at this situation and saying he stole the TV but in fact he is only being charged with taking it home without authorization.”

Community members said it is confusion like this that makes it difficult for them to decide how to receive the news. While some believe the chief may have overstepped his boundaries, other say the demotion was too harsh.

“Where's the truth?” asked Carleen Criblez, 70. “This will all be solved once someone finds the truth.”

Under state law, the chief has an opportunity to argue his case at a hearing, which is to be open to the public. But input from the public will not be allowed, Mr. Geisheimer said.

The council then will decide whether to modify the disciplinary action, keep it, or throw it out altogether. Mr. Foust can appeal that decision to the Allen County Common Pleas Court.

The hearing likely will be at council's Feb. 6 meeting but could be earlier if both parties agree, Mr. Geisheimer said.

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