Lowe put on leave; hearing planned
Haines Borough manager Mark Earnest placed police chief Gary Lowe on paid administrative leave Tuesday, making Sgt. Simon Ford acting chief.
The assembly voted unanimously Tuesday night to “as soon as possible, hire a hearing officer to facilitate an internal investigation into the complaints against the police chief and his abilities to perform his duties and supervise the police department.”
It voted 5-1 to extend Lowe’s leave until completion of the investigation, with assembly member Dave Berry opposed.
Earnest gave the assembly his written performance evaluation of Lowe and a letter, addressed to Lowe, explaining his decision to put Lowe on leave due to complaints from police department employees.
The assembly voted unanimously to discuss the letter and performance evaluation in executive session, but Lowe exercised his right to keep the discussion public.
Several assembly members commented during the meeting about the difficulty of discussing details and speaking freely in a public setting. Assembly member Steve Vick said in an interview Wednesday Lowe’s decision to hold the discussion in public “certainly confined how the assembly can deliberate and what kind of information the public can have access to.”
Earnest would not release copies of the performance evaluation and letter to the CVN.
Mayor Stephanie Scott read aloud several parts of the evaluation. She noted that on a 0-4 scale, Lowe’s most frequently occurring score in the “major job duties” category was a 3. However, in “overall performance,” Scott noted Lowe’s marks were quite poor.
“There are a couple of zeroes in this section,” she said.
Assembly member Debra Schnabel said she interpreted the scores and letter to indicate Lowe’s interpersonal skills with staff were severely lacking and needed significant improvement to retain Lowe as police chief.
Schnabel also said that while Lowe might excel in some areas of lesser importance – she used a generic example of “conducting inventory” – the areas where he is deficient carry more weight, considering his position.
“We have a situation where the evaluation of the chief by the manager indicates that the leadership attributes are lacking, and that’s how I see it, because it creates problems of how to move forward with the work of the police department,” Schnabel said.
Assembly members Joanne Waterman and Vick also agreed the problems in the department appeared to be “systemic” and not isolated to one incident or behavior.
Assembly member Norm Smith said, according to the information provided to him, he doesn’t think the problems are recoverable or reversible. “We have staff that is not happy. More things bubble to the surface and the pot’s boiling. And I really don’t think that there’s much room for improvement at this point.”
Looking at the letter and evaluation, assembly member Jerry Lapp said he would have a “tough time” letting Lowe go at this point. Berry agreed Lowe should be given a chance to better himself and make improvements internally.
Lowe reviewed Earnest’s evaluation and indicated he did not agree with the assessment, especially Earnest’s analysis that his interpersonal skills are “lacking to a point it is not recoverable.”
Though multiple assembly members referred several times in the course of the discussion to Earnest’s “recommendation,” Earnest said in an interview after the meeting he did not make a recommendation.
Earnest said Wednesday he contacted borough attorney Brooks Chandler to put together an outline of how the internal investigation will be conducted. Vick said this week “employees are certainly going to be asked to speak in front of the assembly, most likely one-on-one.”
“I think what we’re looking to do is (ensure) everyone feels comfortable and safe, without feeling confined in any way. How we create that atmosphere is something we’re going to have to determine,” he said.
Vick said he is hoping to hold the hearing next week.
Sgt. Ford, who assumed acting chief status Tuesday, said a dispatcher called him Tuesday around noon and informed him of Earnest’s decision to place Lowe on leave. Ford didn’t speak to Earnest until several hours later. Ford said aside from being told Lowe was put on leave, Earnest “didn’t offer a lot of explanation beyond that,” and didn’t specify for how long the leave would last. However, Ford was told Lowe was instructed to not contact anyone at the department.
Ford said he hopes the internal investigation will take place in an environment where people feel comfortable to speak freely, and that Lowe’s presence during any interviews would inhibit that.
“It seems like we already answered a lot of questions,” Ford said, referring to an inquiry already conducted by Earnest. “But if we need to answer them again, we’ll do that.”