City approves using sheriff as interim police chief

BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
PCC EDITOR

FORT MADISON – It took an impassioned commentary from City Manager David Varley to get it done, but the Fort Madison City Council has agreed to let him use the Lee County Sheriff’s Dept. as an interim police chief.

At Tuesday’s regular City Council meeting, the council debated for close to an hour on the idea, eventually voting 5-2 to bring in the sheriff. Councilmen Rusty Andrews and Chad Cangas voted against the move.

Varley proposed the idea through a 28E agreement that was put together over the past couple of weeks through the efforts of several city and county staff that in essence moves retiring police chief Tim Sittig’s salary to the county, for the sheriff’s services. Sittig announced his retirement several weeks ago effective May 31.

The Lee County Board of Supervisors, which discussed the agreement at its meeting Tuesday morning, deferred any action until Fort Madison officials had made a decision.

Varley told the council the agreement is for six months, but the county wanted a 3-month review of the agreement. He said he thinks it should only take three or four months to find a replacement either internally or outside the department.

Several county officials, including Lee County Attorney Ross Braden, Lee County Supervisor Rich Harlow and Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber all spoke to the council on the issue.

Weber said even without the agreement, Fort Madison is in Lee County and the sheriff’s department is ready to assist like they would any other entity in the county.

But he reminded the council, that this is the city hiring the sheriff’s department to do a job and his staff will do that job.

Weber plans on putting former Fort Madison Police officer Craig Burch on site at the police station. Lee County Chief Deputy Will Conlee will be Burch’s direct supervisor, and Weber would oversee the interim services.

“We’re a goal oriented, goal-driven department. That’s how you get things done. If I tell you on Monday to get something done, you better have a reason for me on Friday why it didn’t get done. We’re being hired to do something. That’s what this is about,” Weber said.

“You have goals you want met and you want to see a department a certain way. Its our job to take if from A to B. The meetings we’ll have weekly… you’ll be able to make sure we are. There’ll be accountability.”

A clause in the agreement states the sheriff won’t accept calls from elected officials, but we’ll work directly with Varley. It also says any personnel decisions need a thumbs up from Varley and City Attorney Robert Johnson, to make sure Iowa Code 80F, which is essence a bill of rights for state peace officers, is followed correctly.

“You hire us we will listen, we just don’t need nine bosses. No offense guys. I don’t need that many folks coming at me at once, I just need one.”

City Councilman Chad Cangas said his concern was that they were taking a captain from the sheriff department in as the supervisor of the police department, who’ll answer to the chief, or sheriff., who’ll answer to Dave.

“I feel like there will be a lot of resentment toward us, and Craig, if he’s the guy, when we say were going to take this captain same rank, same team, and all of a sudden now I work for you?,” Cangas said.

“If we’re going to pay them, and I think we should, then how bout you give us another captain and let us make one of our captains the chief, and then we’ve got somebody to act as a consultant and liaison to somebody who has new ideas.”

Cangas said if it was his job in 3 months he wouldn’t want someone to come in before him and wreck his vision before he ever got there.

Varley said he felt this was the best decision for the department and he was recommending the council approve the deal.

Cangas then told Varley that he had faith in him to do his job. and he didn’t want to tell him how to do those things, but he couldn’t support it.

Varley then addressed those comments and said the council needs to trust him and give him the resources he needs with a revved up response.

“You expect certain things from me and I want the resources to deliver them. But you won’t give me the resources to deliver it. I cannot give you what you want if I can’t have what I need to produce the product,” Varley said.

“I’m telling ya this is the best thing for the department and I can guarantee it. And then you come to me and tell me you can’t have that – and then you’re gonna turn around and slap me upside the head saying, ‘You didn’t give us what I wanted’. Well I’m not getting what I need. I deal with the chief every single day and I know what’s going on and there’s things I can’t share with you, but I know what’s going on and I don’t take this lightly. It’s a difficult situation. I’ve been agonizing over this ever since Tim told us he was going to leave,” he said.

You’re tying handcuffs behind my back and then I can’t do what I’m supposed to do. And I don’t think that’s fair to me to put me in that position. And then hold me responsible for something where I need this to get the job done, but I can’t have that – ‘but we still expect you to get the job done’… I can’t work like that.”

Mohrfeld said hearing that, he was supporting the agreement.

“That’s probably the bottom line, Dave. You put it that way you have my support. We have to put a longer term machine in place and to me this is the tool. Whether we like it or not, we gotta ask ourself are we going to support the system we put in place, I will,” Mohrfeld said.

Councilman Bob Morawitz said he was going to support the issue to keep staffing levels safe, even though he didn’t think it was the right way to go to bring in an outside person in the interim.

He said if there are internal issues in the department, he should be more aware of those things.

Harlow stepped to the podium and invoked Paul Harvey saying, “Let’s just shuck right down to the cob” and brought up when Bruce Niggemeyer, was police chief, a position that was filled from within. Harlow said Niggemeyer left because of the “heat” he was getting as chief. He said there are also reasons why Sittig is leaving.

“Why do you think he’s leaving?” he asked while walking back and forth in front of the council. “Because he wants to retire?… you think there’s more to that. Let’s be honest and tell it like it is.”

“I want to go to the truth with you, Councilman Chris Greenwald said. “Council’s bullying the police chief, let’s go right to that. We’ve been bullying chiefs of police for a long time.. that’s the elephant in the room.”

Greenwald then looked over to Weber and asked “Are you going to put up with me bullying you?” to which Weber replied no.

“Why don’t we look at this from a different angle. Maybe not only is he going to train leadership in our police department, maybe he’s going to train council?”

“Not a chance,” Cangas said. “If I’m going to bully the police chief, I’ll just wait til he’s gone.”

Randolph said one of the hardest things to do is going from rank-and-file to a management position.

“The inherent problem with that, even if you do it in an official capacity, is trying to separate yourself from that rank-and-file and that relationship and change that relationship. You’re then in charge with who you were equal with, or even under. Putting a chief in place who we have and bringing them up personifies that. I think we’re over thinking this,” Randolph said.

“I’m a fan of Weber and I think he’s the pride of Lee County in the way he handles his department. Why wouldn’t I want something similar to that in my department.”

Cangas said he agreed saying Weber rose above his people and good people will do that. He said he thinks the city should ask the county for something the council’s more comfortable with, and he’s not comfortable with the deal.

Mark Lair said he came into the meeting thinking the city didn’t have the funding, but he said he feels now this is a good opportunity to get the city on the right path.

“If this works, I think it will be a plus for everybody,” Lair said.

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