Varnell City Council members unanimously reinstated Police Chief Lyle Grant Tuesday night, and Mayor Tom Dickson announced that Grant will retire from the department at the end of the year.
A Whitfield County grand jury declined to indict Grant last week for felony theft by taking for providing a county-owned, encrypted radio to a Dalton wrecker service.
Grant, who had been placed on paid administrative leave on April 30 after District Attorney Bert Poston said he would present evidence from a Georgia Bureau of Investigation report to the grand jury, will return to duty on Wednesday. His two-year contract with the city runs through December, and Dickson said Grant will retire after he completes the contract.
Grant declined to answer questions from a reporter after the council members met in executive session for 20 minutes and emerged to vote 5-0 to reinstate him.
“I’m glad it is over and glad to be back,” Grant said, referring questions to his attorney, Marcus Morris.
Grant's providing the radio to Bob Cummings, owner of Bob’s Wrecker Service in Dalton, was investigated first by the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office and then by the GBI. The sheriff’s office said in a statement at the time, “It was determined shortly after starting the investigation that criminal charges could arise from this incident, therefore the case was turned over to the GBI to investigate."
According to an incident report from the sheriff’s office, "Cummings stated that when the digital radio system went online, he was having to pay one of his employees to stay at the office and monitor the phone calls coming in. Cummings asked Varnell Police Chief Lyle Grant if he could obtain an encrypted radio to use and Chief Grant agreed."
Morris said the reason for giving the radio to Cummings — who owns the only wrecker service on call for Varnell when wrecks occur — was to “save lives.” Morris pointed to a wreck in Varnell when emergency crews couldn’t extricate a driver until a wrecker moved another vehicle out of the way.
“With Bob’s being the only wrecker service to be on their service, if they (Bob's) could be alerted there was a serious accident, it could really save lives,” Morris said. “At no time was there anything in this whole process that Lyle did that didn’t have the consideration of the citizens of Varnell and really a benevolent purpose. The whole purpose was to make sure that if you had a serious traffic accident you would have wrecker service available instead of passing it through 911. That was the whole purpose.”
Mayor Tom Dickson said he is glad to have the situation resolved.
“I think everyone on the council would have liked it to be a little quicker,” Dickson said. “We needed to let the legal process work itself out, but it worked out well for everyone.”
Officials with Whitfield County have said they are working on guidelines that will govern the use of the encrypted radios, which were purchased with Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds and are provided to the municipal governments of Cohutta, Tunnel Hill and Varnell.
Varnell councilwoman Ashlee Godfrey said she thinks there needs to be rules in place.
“I think it is important we have standard operating procedures in place for all situations,” Godfrey said. “I’m not saying that it was right or that it was wrong (to provide the radio to the wrecker service), but you need to have rules in place to avoid those kinds of situations. Overall, I believe that Chief Grant was acting in what he thought was the best interest of the city.”
Dickson said he looks forward to seeing the guidelines and will meet with Grant to examine the city’s policies.
“We will not be giving away any Varnell equipment,” Dickson said. “I am sure that the chief and I will sit down and go over how we are doing things.”