Bill Lee's failed resignation could widen Sanford's racial divide

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As the 4:00 p.m. special meeting approached, the deal was all but done.

Bill Lee Jr., or “Billy Lee” as he’s called in Sanford, a small, southern city nestled between Lake Monroe and the St. Johns River, and the less genteel county seat of wealthy Seminole County, had tendered his resignation.

His letter to the city manager began by stating what an honor it had been to serve the city of Sanford as its police chief.

“However,” the letter continued, “in response to the city manager’s suggestion” and … “to allow the city to move forward beyond recent events, I have decided that I can no longer serve as police chief, and I hereby tender my resignation…effective April 23rd.”

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Lee, who had been chief for just ten months when the Trayvon Martin shooting upended his tenure, had negotiated a severance package with the equally new manager, Norton Bonaparte. According to a person with knowledge of the events, he had signed the separation agreement after Bonaparte essentially gave him two choices: resign with a severance package or be pushed out. The agreement would make permanent Lee’s March 22nd announcement that he was stepping aside temporarily, to allow the passions surrounding the Martin case — particularly among African-Americans, over the refusal of Lee’s officers to arrest Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman — to cool. Lee’s letter said he hoped his permanent resignation would help the city begin to move forward.

Bonaparte had come to the conclusion that waiting another three or four months for the results of a city probe into Sanford police’s handling of the shooting’s aftermath would drag on too long, as evidence wound its way through Zimmerman’s criminal trial; waiting would delay the city’s much needed healing process. Not to mention the fact that, under the terms of his paid leave, Lee is still receiving his $102,000 annual salary, while the small city of just over 53,000 residents also pays an interim chief, Darren Scott, an African-American recently promoted to captain.

Besides, said Bonaparte, in an interview Monday night with MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, “I think with the city commission voting that they had no confidence in [Lee], I think that was the challenge, and that’s why he and I came to an agreement.”

That “no confidence” vote on March 21st had been 3 to 2, with Sanford’s mayor, Jeff Triplett, siding with the city’s lone black commissioner, Velma Williams, and commissioner Mark McCarty, who has long been critical of Lee. But on Monday night, Triplett changed sides, voting with commissioners Randy Jones and Patty Mahany — both vocal Lee supporters — to reject the severance package worked out between Bonaparte and Lee.

“Jeff decided, well, that we should wait a few months to find out if [Lee] did anything wrong,” said McCarty, who added that he was “totally shocked” by the reversal of Lee’s ouster. “The other commissioners commented that maybe he’s guilty of doing a bad [media] interview but that that’s no reason to fire him. Jeff decided to vote with them.”

Mayor Triplett did not respond to calls or emails requesting comment.

According to Sanford’s charter, the police chief serves at the pleasure of the manager; at the hearing, commissioner Williams and a representative of the local NAACP questioned how the commissioners cold override Bonaparte’s authority. “Either Lee serves at the pleasure of the manager or he doesn’t,” McCarty told theGrio late Monday night.

Bonaparte, who is black, had been criticized by some Sanford residents, black and white alike, for what they saw as indecision and timidity in the face of the “good old boy network” they feel is entrenched in the Sanford police department, and even in city government. His move to oust Lee was seen as a reaction to intense pressure from black leaders, and from others who worry that the Trayvon Martin controversy could permanently damage Sanford’s reputation.

But Bonaparte needed the commission’s approval of the severance package, which, at around $54,000, exceeded Lee’s contract.

The vote to reject that agreement was a victory for Mahany, who told theGrio before the meeting that she thought Lee was “being made a scapegoat” for the Trayvon Martin tragedy.

“Ultimately’ the manager does hold the final decision as to what happens in regards to Chief Lee,” Mahany told theGrio Tuesday, “however the city manager had stood strong in his resolve that although Chief Lee would remain on paid leave, he would do nothing [to remove Lee] until an outside independent investigation took place.”

Mahany, whose district is home to the Retreat at Twin Lakes, where Martin was killed, said she and her fellow commissioners were surprised by a 1:00 p.m. call Monday that Bonaparte had changed his mind. She believes waiting for the independent investigation to be concluded is a matter of fairness.

“Just saying you have no confidence is not a reason to fire someone,” Mahany said. “We discussed it and voted to not accept the chief’s resignation at this time and to have Mr. Bonaparte continue to do what he promised. What we’re trying to say is that Sanford does need to heal, but how do you start to heal by doing something unfair to a good man?”

Mahany had previously voiced skepticism that black Sanford residents universally distrust Lee, pinning the drive to oust him on “outsiders” like Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network (Sharpton also hosts a show on MSNBC, which, like theGrio, is a division of NBC News). Sharpton organized the largest “Justice for Trayvon” rally on March 22nd, the same day Lee announced he was stepping aside “temporarily,” so his presence would not be a distraction from what had become a state and federal investigation.

But it has been clear in Sanford for some time that the feelings of distrust for Lee and the police department even more so, run deep among black Sanford residents. And the racial fault lines in the city are growing wider.

According to one account, when a black resident stood up to remind the commission Monday that African-Americans represent one third of Sanford’s population, a white resident across the room shot back, “we’re here to represent the other two-thirds.” During the contentious meeting, another black resident pointedly, and sarcastically, asked how long it would be before Sanford’s black residents were re-relegated to the upstairs balcony at the movie theater, or barred from using the city’s public swimming pools, as was the case in the city, as in most of the south, during Jim Crow.

Mahany insists that has nothing to do with Billy Lee.

“Sanford did have an entrenched good old boy system in the 50s, 60s and 70s,” she said. “But those guys are all dead. Lee was brought here ten months ago to make some changes in the police department and community relations are one of them. The black community were demoralized by chiefs of the past, not this police chief.”

And yet, over the last several weeks, support and opposition to Lee’s return has largely divided along racial lines, which Mahany said is being fueled by divisive elements among the city’s black activists, who she says won’t stop with Lee – they want Bonaparte’s head, too. She cited Lee’s most prominent black supporter as evidence of his ties across racial lines, though CJ Blancett, founder of the pro-Lee United Sanford Alliance, lives in nearby Deltona, not in Sanford.

To be sure, not all of Sanford’s black leaders think ousting Lee is a cure-all. The Rev. H.D. Rucker, who hosted the Sharpton rally, said that, though removing Lee would please most on the black community, “the problem we have in Sanford is not the chief of police, it’s not Bonaparte, it’s bigger than both of them. We need to change our form of government.” Rucker says the manager form of government is antiquated, and the city needs a strong mayor system. He also says Trayvon Martin could never have imagined the impact he would have on the world, and on the city where he died.

“All of Sanford’s nakedness is being exposed,” Rucker said.

McCarty is worried about the future.

“I still stand by what I did,” he said of his no confidence vote last month and his vote to accept Lee’s resignation Monday. “And I told everybody at the meeting that there needs to be some heads that roll at city hall and the police department” over the Zimmerman-Martin case.

“If we don’t change, it’s gonna make it harder and harder,” McCarty said. “When you know the history of Sanford and race… ” He trails off. It’s late, and the burly, white haired commissioner, who has suffered recent health problems, is tired, and on his way home to rest.

“I’m sure the Martin family and the rest of the world are looking at Sanford like, ‘my gosh, they want the guy to come back?’ We’re like the Titanic that looked at the iceberg and just kept going.”

Lon Howell, a longtime Sanford resident and former commissioner, said he thinks Monday’s vote just delayed the inevitable.

“I disagree what they did last night in not accepting his resignation,” Howell told theGrio. “It’s not that I don’t like Billy Lee, but with all the publicity, and him making the decision not to charge Zimmerman, and then the state attorney charges him with second degree murder, why the difference? And with all [Lee has] been through, why would he want to come back? It’s just two passionate commissioners that stopped it, but it’s gonna happen eventually.”

McCarty agrees.

“I don’t even know if Lee wants to come back to this job, and he’s got these people forcing him [to stay,] and he keeps collecting $10,000 a month,” he said, adding that he is “amazed” that given the lack of confidence in his leadership from the onetime commission majority, and from black Sanford residents, Lee’s supporters still think he can come back and be an effective leader of the embattled police department.

Mahany insists that Lee can, and wants to, come back, saying she spoke with him about a week ago.

“Yes, I think he could be effective because he’s a highly qualified individual, he cares about this community,” she said, adding that “all but about 6 or 7” of the city’s 130-plus police officers are solidly behind Lee.

“They tell me on a daily basis that they’ve never had higher morale,” Mahany said of Lee’s time as chief. “I think the way the police department responds to our community is going to be what makes the changes in how our community responds to the police.”

Besides, she said, “prior to Trayvon Martin I never heard one word about people not trusting our police chief.”

McCarty does not share his fellow commissioner’s optimism. “It’s gonna be very difficult now to keep peace,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who are gonna be very, very angry.”

McCarty said he one thing Sanford may have going for it at this point is time.

“Sometimes you have to go backwards in order to move ahead,” McCarty said. ”[But] tonight, we failed.”

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport