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Large crowd presses council on Chief Couch matter
new deh city council couch couch pic web
Suspended Great Bend Police Chief Cliff Couch addresses the City Council during its meeting Monday night at the Great Bend Events Center. - photo by DALE HOGG Great Bend Tribune

In the end, nothing changed. 

Great Bend Police Chief Clifton Couch remained suspended with the threat of termination, and a large vocal contingent of Great Bend residents remained furious and frustrated with the City Council, City Administrator Howard Partington and Mayor Mike Allison.

This followed well over an hour of passionate and angry appeals from an oft unruly crowd of over 400 that filled the Great Bend Events Center Monday night for the council meeting. There were also two council votes to reinstate Couch and one vote to suspend Partington along with Couch pending the outcome of an investigation into the matter, all ended in a four-four tie with Allison breaking the ties in favor of the council’s previous action.

“The decision (to suspend Couch July 24) was made unfairly,” said Councilman Dana Dawson. He was one of three who voted against the suspension.

Sometimes elected officials have to make tough choices, he said. “But, our first responsibility is to the citizens of Great Bend.”

Since it is not feasible to suspend both Couch and Partington at a time when the city is short on staff, he was the first to move for reinstatement. But, according to Robert’s Rules of Order, such a motion has to come from a member who voted for the suspension in the first place.

The throng began chanting “come on Mike,” referring to Councilman Mike Boys who voted for the suspension. “This is getting ugly, stop this,” Boys said.

Boys said he talked with both Couch and Partington and learned there had been miscommunication during the executive session at the June 29 meeting where Couch leveled accusations of corruption against the city. Couch jumped the gun and said he could not work with Partington, but upon later reflection said he could.

With this in mind, Boys moved to reverse the July 24 decision. This died in a four-four split with Allison casting the deciding vote.

The crowd then went to work on Councilman Wayne Henneke, trying to get him to switch since he voted for the suspension and would have been the tie-breaking vote. “I want to hear it out of his mouth” that Couch is willing to work with Partington. 

Couch was not in the hall at the time, but showed up later to a standing ovation and cheers. He came to the podium and said he would be willing to work with Partington but was unwilling to withdraw a request for an internal investigation.

When pressed by the audience when he was called a hypocrite, Henneke said he still wouldn’t change his mind. “I really feel I am being pushed into this. If I have to vote, I will vote no.”

An obviously irate Dawson also tried to get the council to vote on a full forensic audit of the city. “I wanted it on the agenda tonight.”

This didn’t happen. It may be on the agenda at the next council meeting Aug. 21.

After this, Councilman Cory Zimmerman, who also voted against the suspension, moved to suspend Partington pending the outcome of a management study of the Police Department. 

Dawson seconded this. “If it's fair to one, it's fair to all,” and Partington made allegations against Couch as well.

Again, a four-four tie. Allison voted against the measure.

The crowd.

Although most of the speakers were respectful as they took the podium, throughout the evening there were cheers as the audience members spoke, and boos and heckling as the council members spoke. City officials decided last Thursday to move the meeting to the center to accommodate the large audience anticipated due to the controversy involving Couch, the council and City Administrator Howard Partington.  

The council set aside 30 minutes for public comments, but that stretched to over 45 minutes. It also spilled over into other items on the agenda.

“This issue is very serious to us citizens,” said Jennifer Flick. “We are very passionate.”

She provided a testimony to Couch’s character and integrity. “This is the kind of police chief I want serving my community.”

Flick commended the council members for taking the vow to serve. “Now, take that vow seriously.”

She was cheered and applauded as she asked for his reinstatement.

“We do need a man of integrity,” said Laura Millard, whose husband Paul Millard is on the police force. “These (past two years since Couch was hired) have been the best of his law enforcement career.”

Department morale has improved and the officers feel Couch has their back. “Open all your hearts and reverse your decision.”

She also said there need to be more “checks and balances” placed on Partington. “He has too much power.”

Partington was not at the meeting and Allison said it was due to health reasons. This announcement met with boos and jeers.

Joseph Trimmer said he supports both Couch and the city. Referring to negative social media comments, “bashing the place where they work is unacceptable. We as a community are better than this.”

Although he has been chastised for his comments, Trimmer said both sides need to be heard. But, he added, bad decisions were made and later came down hard on the council.

There were accusations about Henneke’s working for the city while serving on the council, the relationship between Allison and Councilwoman Vicki Berryman and other charges of corruption. In addition, many were frustrated with what the saw as all the unanswered questions. “When will it be our turn to ask questions?” said Mike Harbaugh. 

It was left open that the matter could return to a later council agenda.

As the meeting wore on, the audience grew more and more vocal and more and more vicious in its comments. Many just jumped in and interrupted the council and other city officials trying to present information on other agenda topics.

No hearing

In his suspension order, Couch was given the option of appealing the action. But, the meeting Monday did not include the hearing on Couch’s possible termination.

Couch filed his appeal on July 28 and the city originally had two weeks to schedule an appeal hearing, but he has the option to waive that two-week requirement. 

However, the city has been informed that Couch is now represented by a different attorney, who has requested additional time to prepare for the hearing. His schedule does not permit this hearing to occur until later in August.

The city’s special counsel Ed Keeley will work with Couch’s new attorney and the city to set a date and time for the hearing. Once set, officials said it will be announced.

Although Couch can request the hearing be public, the council is under no obligation to follow that request. It will likely be done in an executive session. 

Council meetings are normally held at the city offices, 1209 Williams. But, in a letter to city administrators and council members, Barton County Sheriff Brian Bellendir expressed concerns about an expected large crowd and the potential for safety issues.

What led to this?

On July 24, the Great Bend City Council held the special meeting with the sole agenda item being an executive session “to discuss employment issues common to two individual employees pursuant to non-elected personal matter exception.”

Following the 45-minute closed-door session, the council emerged and approved suspending Couch with pay with the potential for termination. This was based on comments he made during the June 29 special meeting that consisted of two hours and 45 minutes behind closed doors with the council, the city’s special counsel Ed Keeley, City Attorney Bob Suelter and Tom Berscheidt, the Great Bend attorney representing Partington. 

At the June 29 meeting, Couch alleged he was being ordered by Partington to lie, establish a quota system for traffic tickets, hide his opinions on problems within the Police Department from the City Council, forbidden to publicly divulge information on a slush fund within the Public Works Department (this has been investigated by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation which recommended no charges be filed) and being punished for contradicting Partington (in part by not being allowed to attend the National FBI Academy which he had already been accepted for). He cited a pattern of harassment and retaliation.

Partington has maintained that Cliff has been insubordinate, accusations that were at the heart of his eventual suspension order.

The council emerged and called for a management and compensation study of the Police Department.

The Great Bend Tribune anonymously received a copy of Couch’s statement he read during the June 29 executive sessions outlining his concerns.  

These two meetings followed executive sessions at the May 1 and June 5 regular meetings. All of these dealt with the same topic.

There had also been a letter-writing campaign by Couch’s attorney Dennis Keenan and an attorney for the Great Bend Fraternal Order of Police chapter, Matthew Huntsman of Overland Park.

It was also during the June 5 meeting Couch presented his concerns about the Police Department in the open to a capacity, vocal crowd at City Hall.