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Council appoints interim manager

By Billy Corriher

The Riverdale City Council unanimously approved Sylvester Murray of Joshua Kim Associates as interim city manager at a Monday night meeting.

Murray's Cleveland-based firm focuses exclusively on serving local governments, and Councilman Kenny Ruffin said Murray is "very well-respected" and would bring a lot of experience to Riverdale.

"He's been doing the job for 30 years," he said.

The city is negotiating with Murray for the terms of the contract, Ruffin said. The council is still receiving applications for permanent city manager, a position left open after City Manager Billy Beckett announced he would not seek to renew his contract when it runs out in May.

Beckett left after disagreements with Mayor Phaedra Graham, who has also faced problems communicating with council members.

Dexter Matthews, president of the local NAACP, addressed Graham and the council, asking them to put aside their differences to work for the good of the city, including addressing allegations of racism in the Police Department.

"We need you guys to work together to solve these problems," he said.

Residents packed the council's meeting room and several addressed the council as members considered bids for repairs to city property, calling for the inclusion of minority businesses in the bidding process.

After local residents began asking Assistant Public Works Director Boyd Cummings about minority contracts, former mayoral candidate Kelley Jackson called for getting the best candidates for city contracts, in addition to including minority firms.

"Let's do business here the best way we can," she said.

Ruffin read a statement from Graham and the council after the meeting to "publicly declare a commitment between the mayor and council to work together."

"It will take time to become the best team we can be to move Riverdale forward," he said.

Matthews said the NAACP was also calling on the council to push for Capt. Philip Neely, who was suspended earlier this month, to be reinstated.

"(Neely) exercised his First Amendment rights and he was harassed and suspended," Matthews said.

After Neely went public with claims of racism in the Police Department, he claims that a city employee called him and told him that his safety could be in jeopardy if he came to work.

On March 12, weeks after the incident, Neely was demoted to sergeant, then had his demotion reversed the next day, when he was placed on administrative leave.

Neely said he has not heard from Edwards about when or if he will be reinstated, or even why he was placed on administrative leave.

Neely said he believes the suspension was in retaliation for speaking out about racism in the Police Department.

Edwards would not comment on why Neely was suspended and said he has not made a decision on when or if Neely would be reinstated.

But Edwards did say that Neely kept changing his story about the incident involving the threat, first saying he received several threatening calls, then saying he received one call and initially refusing to reveal who that caller was.

"He's a liar," Edwards said of Neely.

Edwards also pointed to a 1997 internal affairs investigation of Neely by the DeKalb County Police Department, where Neely used to work. The report found Neely in violation of several Police Department rules, including associating with a convicted felon and many counts of neglect of duty.

The report centers on Neely's relationship with a convicted felon suspected of dealing drugs. The investigation found no proof of illegal activity by Neely, but also "failed to prove that Neely was not directly involved in these drug deals," the report states.

The report lists several instances when Neely was "found to be untruthful" when questioned about his relationship with the convicted felon.

Edwards said the case in DeKalb when Neely changed his story is "very similar" to the current situation. Neely was hired before Edwards became chief in 2000.

"If I'd been here, (Neely) wouldn't have been hired," Edwards said. "How do you trust a police officer if he lies to you?"

But Neely said the incident in DeKalb County was not relevant to the situation in Riverdale.

"What I did in 1997 has nothing to do with today," he said.

Neely said he didn't lie to Edwards about the situation. Neely said that when he talked to Edwards, he was trying to downplay the threat incident, saying it was blown out of proportion.

"I told him from the start that I was never directly threatened," he said. "I never lied to him."