Officer on unpaid leave

SALEM – City patrolman Gary Poage has been suspended without pay pending the outcome of a case against him for charges of drunken driving and marked lanes following his arrest early Sunday in Canfield.

Police Chief J.T. Panezott discussed his decision Tuesday after contacting Poage by phone and advising him of his employment status. He said he couldn’t meet with him in person because Poage said he was out of the area.

Panezott and Lt. Don Beeson then traveled to Poage’s residence and picked up his equipment, including his service weapon and badge. With Poage’s license suspended and seized as a result of the OVI, he can’t operate a vehicle, which is a requirement for police officers to patrol and respond to calls.

“You can’t perform your job if you don’t have a valid driver’s license,” the chief said.

When asked why the suspension was without pay, he made it clear that’s what his practice will be as chief, saying “if you perform your duties, you get paid. If you don’t perform your duties, you don’t get paid.”

“He really didn’t have anything to say,” Panezott said regarding the conversation with Poage. “I am evaluating his personnel file to decide if any other action will be taken prior to this being resolved in court.”

The loss of Poage makes the department even more short-handed than it already was, according to the chief, with other officers having to cover and work overtime. He said it hurts everybody on the department.

“I hate to see it happen. He should have known better,” Panezott said, adding they’ll have to await the outcome. “Everybody’s innocent until proven guilty.”

Poage, 47, was taken into custody after a traffic stop on South Broad Street just south of Fairground Boulevard in Canfield at 2:32 a.m. Sunday. He was found to be more than three times over the legal limit for alcohol after blowing a .260 during a portable breath test. The legal limit in Ohio is .08.

He’s scheduled to be arraigned today at 5 p.m. at Mahoning County Court #5 on South Broad Street in Canfield, according to records on the Mahoning County Court web site. He had not worked since the incident and has been with the Salem Police Department since June 1993.

According to city Service/Safety Director Ken Kenst, most of the offenses described in the city’s employee handbook which could warrant discipline apply to when an employee is on the job or using city equipment, not to their actions while off the job on their own time.

The only offense that could relate to a situation where an employee is charged with OVI on their own time would be failure to maintain required licenses or registrations or in the case of workers who must drive city-owned vehicles, such as street workers, the failure to maintain a required commercial driver’s license.

In some of those cases, the ability to legally drive is part of the job.

According to the policy, the license requirements fall under Group 3 offenses, which are considered “of a very serious or possibly criminal nature and cause critical disruption to the operation of the city.” The policy said that appropriate disciplinary action for Group 3 offenses includes from 15 days suspension to discharge for a first offense and discharge for a second offense if it was not implemented at the first offense.

Panezott has talked with Kenst and Mayor John Berlin about the Poage situation and Kenst said they’re following J.T.’s lead and being his support. He also said they’re taking direction from city Law Director Brooke Zellers.