Lake Helen had some ups and downs in its journey to select a police chief, after Chief Mike Walker retired in May.
Spoiler alert: The City Commission hired Robert Mullins, a former police commander and 23-year veteran of the Lake Helen force. Mullins had served as Lake Helen’s interim chief since May.
In classic Lake Helen fashion, though, there were several swerves, turns and roundabouts before the final result.
Even the retirement of Chief Walker was somewhat unusual, as he was forced to retire as a requirement of the Deferred Retirement Option Program (DROP).
This program allows members of the Florida Retirement System to accumulate retirement pay for up to five years before they actually stop working.
But, DROP participants have to retire after five years in the program, and sever their relationship with their employer. Walker had worked in the Lake Helen Police Department for 32 years.
By general agreement of the City Commission, the plan was to rehire Walker six months after his retirement — a six months mandated by the DROP program to discourage double dipping into the system.
In April, before Walker’s retirement, City Administrator Lee Evett wanted to make the plan to rehire Walker official policy.
He was quickly informed by City Attorney Scott Simpson that such a policy would violate the law, put Walker’s entire retirement in jeopardy, and put the city and Walker on the hook for all his DROP benefits.
“I think it’s important for the chief’s benefit, and for the city’s benefit, that we make it very clear that there is no relationship for six months,” City Administrator Lee Evett then explained to the City Commission in April. “You’ve all discussed it, you know what you’d like to do, but to make that an official policy, the city could very well jeopardize the chief’s retirement.”
By June, the city also realized they needed to formally advertise the position of police chief.
“It’s incumbent upon us to continue that separated attitude [with Walker] and advertise for a new police chief,” Evett told the City Commission June 10.
A month later, in July, the charade that the City Commission would hire someone other than Walker had become a reality, as the merits of the temporary police chief, Robert Mullins, entered the spotlight.
The commission also had to deal with 26 résumés from people who had applied to be police chief.
Walker was one of the applicants, but would not be able to be interviewed until the six months mandated by DROP ended in November. Another applicant was the man serving in the role of temporary police chief, Robert Mullins.
“Quite frankly, I think this whole process has jumped the shark,” City Commissioner Rick Basso said at the July 28 special City Commission meeting. “I think we did things way too soon, way too fast. I don’t think we gave Chief Mullins an opportunity to truly prove himself.”
But the city had already advertised the position — worse, there was no deadline for when applications closed.
As Mullins racked up goodwill, including a letter of commendation for Lake Helen Police Officer Joey Rushworth, who tracked down a suspect in a homicide in August, applications continued to pour in.
By October, the city had 36 applications to deal with. After review, six top finalists were selected. Among them were former Chief Walker and temporary Chief Mullins.
Four hours into their regular meeting Oct. 14, at around 11 p.m., the City Commission again discussed the upcoming interview process.
“I feel like we’re preparing an injustice,” Basso said. “I think it’s a disservice to everyone who put their application in.”
“I’ve always maintained that it’s gonna come down to Mike Walker and Robert Mullins, anyway. The elephant in the room is, are we gonna hire Walker, or are we going to hire Mullins,” City Commissioner Jim Connell summarized.
“One of y’all can make a motion right now just to hire someone,” attorney Simpson said.
“I make a motion that we accept Robert Mullins as our new police chief,” City Commissioner Roger Eckert said.
The motion passed unanimously.
Mullins’ salary was set at $70,000, an increase from his previous pay of around $55,000. After a six-month period, he will be eligible for a $4,000 raise.