Sanford Commission votes against police chief's resignation

Move comes in wake of Trayvon Martin shooting investigation

March 22: Sanford police chief Bill Lee temporarily resigns.
March 22: Sanford police chief Bill Lee temporarily resigns.

SANFORD, Fla. – The Sanford City Commission has voted to deny the resignation on Monday of Police Chief Bill Lee Jr., who temporarily stepped down from his position in connection to the Trayvon Martin shooting.

Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett called the special hour-long meeting with city commissioners Monday afternoon. Commissioners voted 3-2 against the resolution, with Triplett and Commissioners Patty Mahany and Randy Jones voting against it. The resolution would have allowed City Manager Norton Bonaparte to execute the separation agreement for Lee. Under the agreement, Lee would have resigned from his post, effective at midnight.

"In light of the vote, Chief Lee will remain on paid administrative leave while an investigation continues into the handling of the Trayvon Martin case by the Sanford Police Department," Bonaparte said. Captain Darren Scott will remain as Acting Police Chief.

Local 6 obtained the separation agreement, which includes Lee's resignation letter. In the letter, Lee writes, "I am willing, ready and able to continue to perform the duties as chief of police, however, in the response to the city manager's suggestion that I resign, I can no longer serve as the chief of police.

Mahany and Jones spoke highly of Lee in a heated debate, saying Lee's reputation is being ruined.

Mahany said she wouldn't accept the agreement because it was "hastily put together" and said she wasn't notified of the special meeting until 11:30 a.m. Monday. Mahan said she was devastated by the treatment of Lee, calling him one of "the finest police officers" in the community.

"This is a man who is a medal of valor winner," Mahany said. "I am physically sick over these proceedings and treatment of Chief Lee. What did the chief do wrong?"

Mahany said that both Lee and other commissioners including herself, are also enduring allegations of being racists.

"He's paying for the sins of past police chiefs," Mahany said. "We are a great city with a great police department. We can't do this to a 52-year-old man with 30 years law enforcement experience with a family with little children. We can't do it."

Jones supported Lee, saying Lee answered honestly at a news conference, and said that news conference "may have been a bad one" but shouldn't result in him resigning.

Jones also said Bonaparte "flip-flopped", by standing by Lee after Martin was shot and killed, asking for an independent review before he made a decision on Lee's fate. Jones asked why Bonaparte changed his mind on Monday.

"What has become more apparent to me is that it may take 3-plus more months for an outside federal agency to come in," Bonaparte said in the meeting.

Jones also said that the Sanford community members aren't the ones who escalated the investigation. Jones said the next outsider who comes to Sanford to get attention, "needs to be shown the finger and  shown the door."

But commissioners all seemed to agree the investigation as a whole wasn't handled properly.

"The way this investigation was handled,  it brought national shame to this city," said Commissioner Velma Williams.

Bonaparte said the commission could reverse the no-confidence vote for Lee, but Triplett said he wasn't ready for Lee to take his position back because he wants outside groups to investigate the case.

Lee temporarily stepped down March 22 following public outcry over the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman.

The city of Sanford is working with consultant from the Police Executive Research firm to find the interim police chief. Bonaparte said replacement candidates will be ready by early next week.

Zimmerman on Monday bonded out of jail after being charged with second-degree murder in Martin's death.  Zimmerman's arrest came more than a month after the Feb. 26 shooting.

Watch Local 6 News for more on this story.