The Great Bend City Council Monday night voted to suspend Police Chief Cliff Couch with pay effective immediately “with potential for termination.” The decision split the council and was approved on a five-three vote following a 45-minute executive session.
“Serious consideration is being given to termination of your employment,” the notice reads. It cites “false or reckless” accusations made by Couch about unethical and dishonest conduct by City Administrator Howard Partington, Couch’s refusal to conduct a harassment investigation of the Police Department as requested by Partington, and Couch’s comments that he couldn’t set aside his differences and work with Partington.
All of these, it notes, are violations of the city’s employee handbook.
“For the above stated reasons, the city’s governing body at this time lacks confidence in your ability to perform the duties of chief of police within the written policies and requirements of the City of Great Bend,” the notice continues.
The council’s action came during a special meeting Monday night. The sole agenda item was an executive session to discuss “employment issues common to two individual employees pursuant to non-elected personnel matter exception.”
A visible tense council reentered the council chambers following the closed-door session. Mayor Mike Allison then read the motion for approval, and after which he presented it to Couch.
However, there was dissension.
“I have never seen a man so presumed guilty and have to prove his innocence,” said Councilman Dana Dawson. “It’s a damn shame.”
He joined council members Brock McPherson and Cory Zimmerman in opposing the suspension.
Voting for were Joel Jackson, Vicki Berryman, Wayne Henneke, Allen Owen and Mike Boys.
Following the meeting, Allison declined to comment, referring all questions to the city’s special counsel Wichita attorney Ed Keeley. Keeley was in the executive session with the mayor, council and City Attorney Bob Suelter.
“I am disappointed,” a stunned Couch said. He tried to bring up improprieties within the city and winds up with the council threatening to fire him.
He said he does have an opportunity for a hearing and rebuttal before the council.
According to the notice, Couch must make his request in writing to the city clerk by 4:30 p.m. July 28. A hearing date will then be set within two weeks of that date.
However, it states, the council will make its final ruling shortly after the hearing. “If you do not make a timely request for a hearing, however, your employment will be automatically terminated as of July 31, 2017.”
There was a request for an executive session to deal with the same matter as part of the agenda for the July 17 regular meeting. However, in an email sent by Partington late Friday morning, July 14, said the session was canceled. “Mayor Mike Allison asked me to email you to inform you that the executive session that was on the agenda for the regular council meeting on Monday, July 17th has been removed from the agenda. He just wanted to let you know this,” the email read.
This executive session would have been the latest in a long string of closed meetings called to discuss the rift between Partington and Couch, one of which included allegations by Couch of being ordered 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 a city department and being punished for contradicting Partington.
Couch leveled his accusations during a June 29 special meeting that included two hours and 45 minutes behind closed doors with the council, Keeley, Suelter and Tom Berscheidt, the Great Bend attorney representing Partington.
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 meeting outlining his concerns. The city was contacted which responded with a statement saying 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.”
This meeting 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 that Couch presented his concerns about the Police Department in the open to capacity, vocal crowd at City Hall.