To demonstrate their respect for the law, Haines Borough leaders should refer the complaint against outgoing police chief Gary Lowe to the Alaska State Troopers for investigation.
They also should throw away whatever template the borough used in writing Lowe’s employment contract, as it contains one provision that is illegal and at least one other that is ill-advised.
The complaint was that, in a Feb. 15 fit of anger that included a profane outburst and hovering over a police employee, Lowe placed the employee “in fear of imminent physical injury.” In the eyes of Alaska law, such behavior is a fourth-degree assault, a serious misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of a $10,000 fine and a year in jail. Haines Police have pursued the same charge against miscreants who threaten and yell at the harbormaster.
Lowe’s outburst was loud and abrupt enough that firefighters in the office upstairs ran down into the police station, believing there to be an emergency.
The complainant also alleges two incidents when Lowe trained a “Taser beam” on officers. Tasers, which briefly electrocute their victims, are potentially lethal weapons. Careless use of them is tantamount to waving around a loaded weapon, another prosecutable offense.
If these complaints had been made by one private citizen against another, Haines Police wouldn’t hesitate to investigate. In cases when a municipal police officer is alleged to have committed a crime, Alaska State Troopers typically investigate. As a matter of protocol, troopers come in on the invitation of the municipality. When accusations about abusing horses were leveled against Haines Police officer Cassandra McEwen last year, troopers made such an investigation, at the request of the borough.
Is there a reason borough leaders aren’t making a similar request in the wake of eyewitnessed allegations that Lowe was abusive toward department employees? For the borough to give Lowe a pass on this is to tell the public: “We enforce the law one way for high-ranking public officials, and another way for you plain folk who lack influence.”
The borough, or any government whose authority rests on the rule of law, loses its credibility when it chooses to not enforce its laws uniformly.
Further, when Lowe’s contract was written, wording was inserted that his evaluation was “confidential.” That was a good deal for Lowe (as well as for clerk Julie Cozzi and chief financial officer Jila Stuart whose contracts contain similar wording.) In the event these borough officers are sacked, there’s scant information for future employers on how they did – or didn’t do – their jobs here. Call it a Teflon parachute.
The problem is the Teflon parachute is illegal. In 1990, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that evaluations of high-level municipal employees as far down the ranks as city librarian are public records. The court ruled that the rest of us have a right to know just how well our powerful public officials are doing their jobs, and to see what their supervisors said about them. That’s appropriate, as we pay their salaries and largely live by their decisions.
By providing for confidentiality of evaluations of officers, borough officials effectively agreed to break state law.
(In light of this newspaper’s request for a copy of Lowe’s evaluation three weeks ago, the contract puts the borough in a particularly awkward spot. Providing the evaluation would apparently violate Lowe’s contract, while denying the request would appear to be defying state law.)
Clearly, the confidentiality language concerning evaluations needs to be stricken from all these contracts.
Finally, Lowe’s contract provides him three months’ severance pay in the event that he is fired. Yes, you read that correctly. Why was such language included in Lowe’s contract? Who in this town gets a bonus when they’re canned? Where did this idea come from? You do your job, you get paid for your work. Do your work poorly and you’re canned.Those were the rules of the workplace last time we checked.
At this point, borough leaders may simply wish to be done with this matter. It turns out there’s a bit more homework to do before hiring our next police chief.