March 7, 2013 | Volume 43, No. 9

Manager reports on police chief

Haines Borough manager Mark Earnest reported Tuesday the results of his investigation into complaints made from within the police department against chief Gary Lowe.

Earnest told the assembly he received a complaint from an employee within the department and subsequently conducted multiple interviews with officers and dispatch personnel to investigate. The interviews yielded “suggestions, ideas and concerns” about Lowe’s behavior, but Earnest didn’t elaborate on the nature of the various concerns.

“What’s emerged from this process is we’ve identified some areas we’ll be working together on to improve,” Earnest said.

However, interviews by the Chilkat Valley News after Tuesday’s meeting indicated several of the assembly members were and are still unaware of the specifics of the original complaint. “Basically what we heard last night was the first I heard of any of it, outside of what I saw in the paper,” said assembly member Steve Vick.

“It was new to me last night,” assembly member Jerry Lapp said in an interview this week. “I think it was right for (Earnest) to make us aware of it, and after we have some more discussion of it, we will look at what the best course of action is to take. But we need to find out more information. We didn’t have all the information.”

Vick said he planned to request a copy of the complaint, as it is the assembly’s responsibility as the chief’s “boss” to ensure the matter is being dealt with. “We are the people who hire and fire the chief and without knowing the details of the complaint, we don’t know if it’s being handled as thoroughly as it should be,” he said.

According to his contract, Lowe is supervised by Earnest, but works at the will of the assembly.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Lowe requested that assembly discussion of the complaint be held in public instead of executive session.

Lowe gave his account of the issue behind the original complaint and said it stemmed from a Feb. 15 discussion with an employee regarding a “contractual issue.”

Lowe said he included the union representative in the discussion, which made the employee “very upset.” Lowe said the employee became “disrespectful and rude,” and he responded by yelling at the employee.

“The chief came up and he was speaking about the complaint. I think you could visually see the uncomfortable effect that had on the assembly members. One, because none of us – except one – heard the details of the complaint beforehand,” Vick said.

Assembly member Debra Schnabel said she had received a copy of the complaint before the meeting only because the complainant approached Schnabel in her office on Feb. 22.

Schnabel said in addition to speaking with the complainant, she has communicated with other personnel in the department, including officers and dispatchers, about their concerns.

Schnabel said in an interview she was “stunned” by Lowe’s “inability to address the facts of the matter.”

“We allowed the chief to speak in third-party interpretations of other people’s behavior. He attributed motivation. He spoke as a storyteller, not as a person who was addressing actions and responses in a factual way,” she said.

Mayor Stephanie Scott said some of Lowe’s remarks were “inappropriate.”

“It revealed far too much about the employee who made the complaint. I never expected him to say what he said... I assumed that he understood the rules,” Scott said.

Lowe said he has spoken to all the employees and, aside from the employee who submitted the original complaint, everyone else is “not unhappy” with Lowe and how the department is being run.

“We all agree that communication is a vital thing for our family group; we feel like we’re a family group. Everyone enjoys working where they’re at. There’s no personal issues with me, but staff meetings and communication is something that we definitely want to work on,” Lowe said.

Schnabel said she is aware of other ongoing complaints against Lowe from within the department and wasn’t satisfied with Earnest’s account of the specifics of the investigation, including additional concerns from employees that emerged through the interviews.

“I perceived that we fell short in providing the details of the allegations. We talked about the generalized sense of dissatisfaction, but we never spoke about what the source of that dissatisfaction is. It emanates from some very specific behaviors and actions and decisions by the police chief over a period of time,” she said.

Though the assembly passed a motion requiring Lowe to submit a plan outlining how he will implement staff meetings and team-building activities to improve communication in the department, assembly members after the meeting said Tuesday’s discussion wasn’t the end of the matter.

“I think last night is not the conclusion of it. I think it’s the assembly’s introduction to it, because we certainly have more questions,” Vick said.

Scott said she requested Wednesday morning the matter be added to the agenda for the March 12 assembly meeting, when she expects Earnest will have a written report and recommendation for the assembly.

Lapp said he intends to speak with Earnest, Lowe and employees at the police department. “I think we’re going to be discussing this some more at the next assembly meeting as soon as we have a little more information,” he said.

Assembly member Joanne Waterman did not return a call for comment.

Assembly members Dave Berry and Norm Smith were absent from Tuesday’s meeting.