Haines Borough Assembly members have called a special meeting to be held 5:30 p.m. Friday to discuss police chief Gary Lowe’s actions during the March 5 assembly meeting.
Members Joanne Waterman, Jerry Lapp and Debra Schnabel made a written request for the special meeting Wednesday afternoon. Code requires requests from three assembly members for the scheduling of a special meeting.
During the March 5 meeting, Lowe gave his account of a Feb. 15 incident involving himself and a police department employee. He also claimed Chilkat Valley News editor Tom Morphet threatened him personally during a Feb. 14 meeting regarding the newspaper’s access to police logs.
Mayor Stephanie Scott said in an interview Wednesday she believes a motion will be made to terminate Lowe. “I think somebody will make a motion to terminate the chief. Whether or not that will pass is anybody’s guess,” she said.
The assembly needs a super-majority, or five votes, to terminate Lowe’s contract. They are not required to offer explanation.
In an interview Wednesday, Waterman said Lowe’s behavior on March 5 is “something that needs attention. Immediate attention.”
“I think assembly members have questions about the statements that he made,” she added.
Though Waterman said there were “concerns” about Lowe’s statements, she declined to give specifics on a personnel matter.
Waterman said Lowe would be in attendance at the Friday meeting, but didn’t know whether other police department employees would be present.
In an email sent from clerk Julie Cozzi Wednesday announcing the special meeting, she wrote, “an executive session is possible.” However, Scott said she doesn’t think an executive session is warranted.
“I do not think there is sufficient cause to go into executive session because everything that was said on March 5 was said in public... so I don’t believe the meeting on Friday will be in executive session,” Scott said.
At its Tuesday meeting, the assembly postponed until March 26 discussion of complaints made by police department employees against Lowe.
Manager Mark Earnest, who initiated an investigation following the filing of a formal complaint by a department employee, submitted a one-page report to assembly members via email two hours prior to their March 12 meeting.
Earnest’s report did not include a copy of the employee’s written complaint; it referred only to an “incident” that occurred between Lowe and a department employee. “Due to the nature of this issue, it would be inappropriate for me to discuss this matter further,” Earnest wrote in the report.
Earnest gave a cursory oral report during the assembly’s March 5 meeting, but Scott requested after that meeting the issue be added to the March 12 agenda, to allow for more information gathering.
Scott, however, recommended during Tuesday’s meeting the issue again be postponed until the March 26 meeting so assembly members could have more time to collect and analyze information.
“I don’t think delay in this situation is wrong. I think that when we’re dealing with matters that are personal – not personnel, but personal – and potentially will change the course of people’s lives, that deliberation is required,” Scott said in an interview Wednesday.
The reason for the swift shift in direction Wednesday was not immediately apparent.
In an interview Wednesday, Scott said if the decision had been hers, she would have placed Lowe on administrative leave pending the results of the investigation.
Scott informed Earnest of her opinion, but Earnest “said that he had talked to the chief and he was certain that the behavior that was demonstrated and the subject of the complaint would not occur again. He felt confident of that.”
Assembly member Schnabel also said she believed that as soon as Earnest identified the complaint as worthy of investigation, Lowe should have been put on administrative leave.
Assembly member Dave Berry said Wednesday he requested a copy of the complaint following Tuesday’s meeting. “I don’t think I should make a decision in the dark.”
Berry said while Earnest’s written report succeeded in not creating any legal liability for the borough, it lacked information. “That memo to me still left questions unanswered, and the only way I can get those questions answered is to talk to all the parties involved,” Berry said.
Assembly member Joanne Waterman, who did not request a copy of the complaint, said she didn’t think she should have one. “(Earnest) is in the process of dealing with it. He’s given us an update. He gave us a verbal update at last week’s meeting. It’s not time for me to be involved. It’s not time for me to be involved until it comes to a higher point,” Waterman said Tuesday.
When asked if that higher point means terminating Lowe’s contract, Waterman said not necessarily. When asked where the threshold for that “higher point” of assembly involvement would be, Waterman could not say precisely, but said it would “become obvious” that another avenue for resolution could not be reached.
Lapp also did not request a copy of the complaint. Although he wants more information, Lapp doesn’t think the proper channels are currently being followed.
“It should have gone to the personnel committee before it came to the assembly. There were some steps there that were missing... It was not right to come right to the assembly right off the bat without us knowing anything about it,” Lapp said.
Assembly member Steve Vick said he requested a copy of the complaint following the March 5 meeting, but did not receive one. He acquired one on his own, he said.
Schnabel, who received a copy of the complaint from the complainant weeks ago, attempted to move into executive session to discuss Earnest’s report, but the motion failed 4-2, with Waterman, Berry, Lapp and Vick opposed. Assembly member Norm Smith, who also did not have a copy of the complaint, voted in favor of the executive session.
The complainant sent copies of the original complaint to every assembly member Wednesday morning.
In an interview after the meeting, Schnabel said she wanted to convene in executive session to address issues with Earnest’s report, including his omission of information regarding both the initial complaint and concerns garnered from Earnest’s interviews with other department personnel.
“I am concerned that there are issues in the police department that need to be addressed, and they need to be addressed sooner than later. And if we continue to postpone them, I think that we are asking the staff and the chief and the entire borough, including us as an assembly, to bear a burden that needn’t be there if we would take action to correct it,” Schnabel said during the meeting.
Schnabel and Smith opposed the motion to postpone discussion.
To ensure proper procedure is being followed and assembly members are aware of their rights, responsibilities and restrictions in the present situation, a personnel committee meeting was scheduled for 5 p.m. March 20.
Scott said the assembly will have Lowe’s performance evaluation – conducted by Earnest – and Lowe’s plan for improvement within the department before the March 26 meeting.