Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories detailing an exclusive Great Bend Tribune interview with Great Bend Mayor Mike Allison and retired City Administrator Howard Partington. This was their first interview since the controversy between the city and now resigned Police Chief Clifton Couch erupted. This story delves into their side of the allegations Couch leveled at them.
BY DALE HOGG
When now retired Great Bend City Administrator Howard Partington sat down with the Great Bend Tribune last week to tell his side of the bitter controversy surrounding former Police Chief Clifton Couch, he came with a mound of folders.
“I have a lot of documents,” Partington said. He joined Mayor Mike Allison in reluctantly coming forward to tell their story.
Couch took over as chief two and a half years ago. For two years, things were fine, or so Partington and Allison thought.
But, a rift between Partington and Couch developed. And in a matter of a few months, it engulfed the entire city. This spawned raucous City Council meetings, hateful rhetoric from people on both sides of the chasm, the resignation of Councilman Wayne Henneke and the early retirement of Partington.
In an effort to heal the community, Partington and Allison believe now is the time to speak out. They related how they once trusted Couch, but were lied to and betrayed by him.
“Here’s an officer with all these resources at his disposal looking into everything you’ve ever done,” Partington said. “It makes life kind of miserable.”
There were also outside Freedom of Information Act requests for emails and travel records.
In the end, “the thing about it is, nothing was ever found. Nothing,” Allison said.
It was during a special meeting on July 24 that a split council suspended Couch. During an executive session, Couch read a lengthy document detailing allegations against Partington and Allison of corruption and unethical behavior.
Many of the items cited by Couch in his statement dated back to a time when Partington and Allison both thought Couch was getting along with them. Below are their responses to the charges leveled by Couch in his statement.
• The crux of the matter.
“This whole things boils down to one person being harassed, he wouldn’t look into it,” Partington said.
When Partington stepped in as interim police chief after Dean Akings retired in 2014, the department had 31 officers on duty. In Couch’s two years on the job, Partington said there has been a net loss of nine officers. Of those, two were dismissed and one retired, leaving six who left for other reasons.
To Couch, poor compensation and lack of manpower were causing cops to leave, Partington said. Couch saw this as a crisis, and said the department had a hard time functioning and that much of the progress in combating drugs was being reversed.
But, the real reason was an ongoing problem with officers being harassed by superiors, Partington said. He cited one particular case of an officer who left to go to another department in the county, taking a pay cut to do so.
The officer talked openly with Partington about being belittled and a culture of harassment within the department. In fact, he contacted the six beat cops mentioned above.
“All of them said they would like more money and more officers, but for none of them was that the reason they left,” Partington said. Some alluded to mistreatment in the GBPD.
Couch said the department couldn’t function because of the lack of staff,
• What happened to the appeal?
It was a sharply divided council that approved Couch’s suspension and a sharply divided council that approved his reinstatement. Before his reinstatement, Couch had indicated he would appeal the council’s decision to suspend him, but after numerous continuances, that hearing never happened.
After being given his job back, he submitted his resignation,
“He made an appeal, but never followed through,” Allison said. “He kept putting it off. My assumption is that he didn’t want to do the appeal because he would be terminated because of what we had.”
Couch was suspended with pay effective immediately “with potential for termination” at a special meeting July 24. 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 read. It cited “false or reckless” accusations made by Couch about unethical and dishonest conduct by 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 noted, were violations of the city’s employee handbook.
In violation of city ordinances, “he decided he wouldn’t do what Howard told him to do,” Allison said.
He was asked to investigate why an officer left the department, the mayor said. “He absolutely said he wasn’t going to do it. He said he couldn’t put aside his differences with Mr. Partington. He never had to answer to those charges because we never had the hearing.”
• Couch’s assertion he had been asked to lie.
“Cliff Couch was one of the most untrustworthy people I have ever known,” Allison said. He said Couch accused him and Partington of lying when he hadn’t been honest with them on numerous occasions.
Allison brought up Couch’s resignation letter in which he said his suspension prompted his seeking the job as police chief in Athens, Tenn., a job for which he was ultimately hired.
However, the mayor said that position was closed to applications prior to his suspension. “That means he had to have been exploring new job opportunities long before everything blew up on him.”
“Couch twists the truth to put other people in a negative light,” Partington said. He referenced Couch’s statement that Partington believes Couch leaked “so he could get all of his comments about me out.”
Going back to that statement, Partington said the first reference to lying came when Couch talked about installing traffic control near McDonalds at 10th and Harrison. “Mr. Couch stated to me that he was having trouble working in unethical conditions due to working with the mayor not allowing him to have lane dividers near McDonald’s to prevent vehicles from making a left turn.”
Although the city’s on-call engineering firm Professional Engineering Consultants had noted these dividers would be a possible solution, Partington said he told Couch his officers could write tickets if they were concerned. But, that didn’t happen, he said.
Allison, and Partington for that matter, were worried that the barriers would interfere with customers trying to get to the restaurant. Allison nixed the project.
“I said don’t make a big deal over this. There are many areas where Allison works for the city. Why try to embarrass him,” Partington said. “I try to avoid embarrassing governing body members by putting their actions in a bad light.”
As it turned out, the Street Department opposed the idea since it would hinder snow removal efforts.
“Couch seems to be obsessed with stating that I have lied or asked him to lie,” Partington said. “He is stretching the truth here as I do not make a habit of telling lies or asking people to lie.”
Couch violated city ordinances by seeking out council members without consulting the administrator, Partington said. And, it is out of line if council members are doing the same.
All correspondence should be routed through the administrator as well, not sent directly to council or others, he said. He doesn’t mean there should be no communications, just that the administrator should be in the loop.
It also falls to the administrator to investigate all concerns, he said, adding department heads and administrators have a duty to uphold city ordinances by oath.
• What about the “slush fund?”
“This was one that just drove me nuts,” Allison said. “One week after Charlie Suchy was appointed Public Works Director, he came to Howard about money in a fund at the Public Works Department from scrap metal sold for Christmas parties and so on, this is illegal.
“This occurred on our watch; we had not been vigilant enough, obviously,” Allison said. Partington said it would be best to have an outside agency handle the investigation to avoid the appearance of a cover-up.
Partington told Couch to contact the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. He did, and met with KBI agents.
Couch then came to Partington and said it was determined that there were no grounds for charges. “Howard said he wasn’t ready to tell the council yet” because he felt there were still some loose ends.
Shortly thereafter, a KBI agent called Partington to ask a couple follow-up questions. “The case was obviously not finished as Couch had indicated,” Allison said.
After that, despite Partington’s instructions, Couch told a department head there would be no prosecution and he could tell his staff that. He did not pass along the information “as he had not heard it from his supervisor, Howard, at this time.”
Allison said he talked to all the department heads and asked them, among other things, if they trusted Couch. “Not a one of them trusted him. Now that’s bad.”
Couch later told the council the case was not finalized. But, he had received a letter from the Barton County Attorney’s Office stating there would be no charges and never shared that letter with Partington.
“Couch said I had no intention to tell council,” Partington said. “That is not true. I said it was going to be hard to tell them.”
Partington met with a KBI agent at his house and the agent asked questions at the request of the county attorney. Among these were requests for the city to go back one more year in documenting the scrap metal fund and if the city had a written policy on disposal of junk.
The next day, Partington said he looked up the desired information and the KBI was satisfied.
Then, Partington was surprised to hear from Allison. The mayor said Suchy told him Couch came to him and said no charges would be filed. “He never said that to me. He has an obligation to keep me informed,” Partington said. The city attorney was left in the dark as well.
Partington said he never saw the letter that the case had been closed.
“He approached each department head and said that I lied,” Partington said. “He was trying to turn them all against me.”
• The Police Community Advisory Committee.
When a bar fight in 2001 between a white man and black man resulted in the black man’s death, the NAACP and the U.S. Department of Justice determined there were no racial overtones. But, the city was asked to form the Police Community Advisory Committee.
“Quite frankly, I didn’t want to do it,” Allison said. Nonetheless, it was formed.
It had 12 members representing various ethnic groups. But,it became defunct, largely due to a lack of interest, Allison said.
Still, the committee remained in place with two members. It would take action by the City Council to eliminate it.
“He came wanting to reinstate that board, but I didn’t want to,” Allison said. “It has not proven to be a functional board.”
Despite his reticence, Allison said he continued to appoint people to the board, five in all. However, Couch only called two meetings and those on the committee expressed frustration.
Incidentally, Allison said reestablishing the committee was one of Couch’s selling points when he applied for the job in Tennessee.
• Was there a ticket quota?
“In his statement, he said he was told to write more tickets and that the department essentially had a quota system for tickets and he couldn’t do something that was unethical,” Partington said. Partington pulled out a chart outlining the number of tickets issued for the past three years. It indicated the number actually dropped and stayed down.
“I never said write so many tickets,” he said. “I see this drop and it concerns me and I wonder what has changed. He takes that to mean I am making him do it.”
He told Couch that this was part of the city budget. “I have to account to the council.”
• Then there was the FBI National academy in Washington, D.C.
“Mr. Couch complains that he was ‘kicked out of the National Academy’ as a punishment for not agreeing with me. He accuses me of almost grinning when I told him he was not to attend the FBI academy,” Partington said.
Partington told Couch people are leaving the department and that former officers feel belittled, making working here unpleasant. “We have an employee who tells me he’s being harassed and (Couch) says that’s not the reason for people leaving, it’s compensation and manpower. He brushed off my request for him to look into the matter.”
Partington received a call from a council member, describing a number of issues he was having with Couch, including the academy and if it was a stepping stone to the next job. He was also concerned about Couch driving a city vehicle.
The former chief has family in the area, and the council member wondered if the city vehicle would be used for personal trips. Partington said a plane ride would be appropriate.
Couch later said the cancelation ruined his vacation plans.
Regardless of the cause for the problems in the PD, Couch said there was a “crisis.” “If he indeed had a crisis at the department, we decided this was not a good time for Couch to be gone,” Partington said.
“It took me a while to inform Couch he would not be going the FBI Academy. I knew he would not take it well,” Partington said. He was right.
“He, indeed, become very upset and said he couldn’t breath he was so mad. He said this was punishment for not agreeing with him. I said call it whatever he wants, it’s not punishment.”
In fact, Couch came to Partington earlier after attending a police chiefs’ conference without having gotten any advance authorization. Partington said he should have been called on this, but Partington feared he would be accused of harassing Couch and that he figured Couch would do whatever he wanted and go anyway.
As for grinning, “that’ a total lie. I did not take pleasure in it.”
“He decided he didn’t have to deal with me anymore,” he said. It got to point where Partington had no room to discipline Couch without potential of harassment allegations.