According to Great Bend Police Chief Cliff Couch, there is a misconception surrounding his recent run-ins with City Administrator Howard Partington and other city officials. It is more than an employment dispute, he said, adding he’s feels he’s been treated inappropriately by Partington and that he is “desperately trying to blow the whistle about unethical conduct occurring at City Hall.”
Couch’s accusations include his being ordered to lie, establish a quota system for traffic tickets, hide his opinions on problems within the Police Department from the City Council and forbidden to publicly divulge information on a slush fund within a city department. He also believes he is being punished for contradicting Partington.
This is all contained in an 11-page statement written by Couch and presented to the City Council in an executive session during a June 29 special council meeting called to address tensions between Couch and Partington. He read this verbatim.
The Tribune reached out to the City of Great Bend. A statement released by the city said Partington “cannot comment on issues discussed in executive session without violating the confidence of the Governing Body. Therefore, until he is released from that confidence by the Governing Body he will not be able to respond to the questions submitted. It is unfortunate that other parties do not feel so obligated.”
Although this was a closed meeting, the Great Bend Tribune was anonymously mailed a copy of Couch’s statement. However, the Tribune contacted Couch and, after hearing a few excerpts, he confirmed he had penned the document, but said he had nothing to do with sending it to the newspaper.
The special meeting came following executive sessions at the May 1 and June 5 meetings. All of these dealt with the same topic.
There had also been a letter-writing campaign by Couch’s attorney and an attorney for the Great Bend Fraternal Order of Police chapter.
It was also during the June 5 meeting that Couch presented his concerns about the Police Department in the open to capacity, vocal crowd at City Hall.
“I’ll first address what would be considered the ‘employment issues.’ Before I get into the details, I need to point out that we, as a City, really need to take a long, hard look at our personnel policies,” Couch wrote. “I’m not sure how it happened, but over the years our policies have been altered to the point that the City Administrator has the power of a dictator. Employees who have concerns about the way they are treated have no avenue to appeal, if Mr. Partington is the subject of their concerns.”
Couch sees a lack of due process for employees. “I’ve been subjected to an incredible amount of stress and anxiety, as well as expensive legal bills, just to obtain something that should be a simple, guaranteed right of every single employee.”
The special meeting was an example of the problem where he felt he was in the hot seat facing accusations from Partington and the council.
This system leads to an environment where administration can “do pretty much as it sees fit, and employees live in fear of what will happen to them if they anger the Administrator.”
Couch cited his not being allowed to attend the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Academy as well as instances where Partington refused to hear Couch’s concerns about officer pay and manpower issues, a problem he said are faced by other department heads as well. I soon came to learn that certain items were off limits to talk about. Through the months, it became clear to me that compensation, manpower, and related issues were off limits to discuss. I could tell that his attitude changed and he became angry whenever these items were brought up.”
The chief said Partington continually refused to hear complaints about staffing. “But he was fixated on ‘harassment’ being the reason that the Police Department had turnover issues.”
Couch wanted a wage study, and after his remarks June 5, the council agreed one warranted, but didn’t discuss it further.
Then, following four executive sessions lasting two hours and 45 minutes June 29, the council approved a management and compensation study, but offered no other explanation prior to adjourning.
Being asked to lie
Couch said he had been told to lie when Mayor Allison cancelled a traffic control improvement on 10th Street in front of McDonald’s. “When (Partington) told me that the Mayor had cancelled the project, he said that I couldn’t tell anyone that it was the Mayor who had cancelled it. When I explained this was one of my concerns, Mr. Partington responded that ‘I didn’t tell you to lie, that was the Mayor telling you to lie.’”
The Police Community Advisory Board
“We have an ordinance that requires us to have this board, and it says that one of the primary purposes of the board is for race relations,” Couch said of the Police Community Advisory Board. It’s my understanding that this Board was actually created with the help of the Department of Justice in response to a racially charged incident in Great Bend.”
The board was more or less inactive, but Couch said he convinced Partington to begrudgingly reestablish it. There was no support, he was not allowed to advertise openings and the mayor excluded mentioning it when making board appointment announcements.
The National Academy
Couch said he had already done all the registration for the FBI academy and it would be a burden to back out of it at that point, however Partington insisted he do so anyway.
“I then asked Mr. Partington if I was being punished. He said that ‘yes,’ I was being punished because I ‘refused to accept responsibility for my Department and agree with him that harassment was the cause of the turnover at the Police Department’ and because I kept talking about manpower and compensation.”
Couch said he’d be lying if he said that he agreed and that he was trying to do what was best for the city. “He replied, and I quote, ‘I decide what’s best for the City around here.’
“So, it is my allegation that Mr. Partington has created a hostile, inappropriate work environment by punishing me because I cannot agree with him on an issue, and have refused to puppet his views,” Couch said.
The chief believes Partington is using him and others as scapegoats since he ignored warnings about Police Department problems.
As a side note, the National Academy started Monday. The application process started a year ago with the city’s blessing, Couch said.
During one meeting, Couch said he was going to be forced to write more tickets. “This is not the first time Mr. Partington has tried to force the Police Department to write more tickets or arrest more people to generate revenue,” he said, adding former Chief Dean Akings also complained.
Couch said he believes any ticket quota system is unethical.
Shortly after the leaving of a former Public Works Department employee, the new Director Charlie Suchy approached City Hall about the fact that the former employee ran a slush fund for many years. Money from sold scrap metal would not be turned in and was used for safety bonuses, holiday parties and other in-office uses.
“I advised that the KBI needed to be contacted to investigate the situation, and they were. On Feb. 21, 2017, I met with the investigating agent and the Barton County Attorney to discuss the outcome of this and another case,” Couch said. During the meeting, the agent advised him and the county attorney that although the law had been violated, he would not recommend pressing charges due to some legal technicalities that would make it difficult to prosecute in court.
Soon thereafter, Couch met with Partington and explained this. “I recommended that, since the investigation was over, we could now let the Council and the community know what happened and what we were doing to prevent such an incident in the future.”
However, “Mr. Partington made it very clear to me (twice) that he had no intention of doing so, as people would likely criticize him for his lack of oversight and for this happening under his watch, which again made me extremely concerned about the lack of transparency in City Hall.”
(As a foot note, there was Kansas Bureau of Investigation probe. However, it was determined that no charges will be filed in this matter at this time.)