It wasn’t easy for Great Bend Mayor Mike Allison and retired City Administrator Howard Partington to open up about the bitter cyclone that swept them, resigned Police Chief Clifton Couch and the entire city into a anger-laced frenzy.
In fact, it was visibly painful for the men, who sat down together last week for an exclusive interview with the Great Bend Tribune. But, despite stories of personal attacks and betrayal, both hope their coming forward now will help heal the chasm that split the community.
“I don’t know if I would have ever done it,” Partington said, adding he agreed to talk at the urging of his long-time friend Allison. “For me, personally, it is going to cause me more grief than it’s going to help. It’s going to rile people back up, especially the people who have been negative towards me all those years.”
He said it was a nightmare reading back through the articles chronicling the controversy. It also rekindled memories of 20 years ago and the bitter fight over attempts to bring a Seaboard hog processing plant to town. Many still hold grudges against Partington and the city after all these years, and many of these folks were at the front of the line to criticize him now.
“For me this is not going to be of value; for my family, this is not going to be of value,” he said. “My hope is that for those people, the silent majority, to find some healing and that the truth can help this city move forward.”
“All these things we talked about, I hope they can help the community heal,” Allison said. “I was just very hesitant to do it (speak publicly about the matter). But the public just needs to know about what transpired.
“This is hard to do,” Allison said of being an elected official. “You do the best you can for the community; if do a good job, you get reelected.
“We have a nice functioning community,” said the mayor, who is not seeking another term in the Nov. 7 general election.
“I don’t like having to prove myself by going to the newspaper,” Allison said. “But here I am.
“We have an election coming up. It’s very important, this election,” Allison said, and one shouldn’t go in with an agenda. “You do the best you can for those who elected you and they can vote you out of office.”
As far as the public is concerned, this issue dates back to May and June. That is when letters from attorneys representing police officers claiming staffing problems at the Police Department were released to the media, and the City Council started holding executive sessions with its attorneys to discuss the claims.
These exposed a rift between Couch and Partington that culminated in an 11-and-a-half page statement read by Couch in a closed-door council meeting that leveled numerous allegations of corruption, lying and unethical behavior against his boss. This statement was leaked to the Tribune and the story on it stoked more public outrage.
These closed meetings also led to blue “Support Couch” signs springing up around town, a series of volatile council meetings held before a capacity crowd at the Events Center and many ugly verbal attacks on city officials. It also caused the resignation of Councilman Wayne Henneke and the early retirement of Partington, both of whom left in large part because of the venomous atmosphere.
Couch was suspended and later reinstated by a sharply split council. But, without pursing an appeal to his suspension and days after his reinstatement, Couch resigned. He had accepted a job as police chief in Athens, Tenn.
Partington and Allison said there is more to the story that they felt needed to be told, but their hands were tied.
“This was a personnel problem and it continued to be a personnel problem,” Allison said. “Then it became a political problem.”
With him not being mayor for much longer, and Partington and Couch no longer employed by the city, Allison said the pair felt comfortable coming forward now.
In the beginning
Were there problems in Police Department prior to Couch’s arrival in 2015?
“I think it’s easy at any point in time to say they are problems within a police department anywhere in the United States,” Partington said. Administrators from across Kansas reached out to him and shared similar tales of morale problems.
“Let’s talk about the time Chief (Dean) Akings retired at the end of 2014,” he said. Partington was the interim chief at the time, per city ordinance.
For two and half months, he held daily briefings with the officers to determine what they wanted and needed. “They were pretty happy,” Partington said, but they did make some suggestions, such as a warrant task force and a crackdown on overly tinted windows. These were both enacted.
But, “I can’t recall if there were any burning personnel problems at the time,” he said. There were 31 officers and the PD was at full capacity.
When Couch came, “he was very needy,” Partington said. “We did buy a lot of stuff; there was almost nothing that he asked for that we didn’t find some way to fund it, even if it was out of the budget.”
New SUVs, two new vehicles for Couch, armor in the squad car doors, a reconditioned tactical vehicle and other items were purchased. “There was no limit to what we did to make it safer for the officers and give them more tools to do their jobs,” Partington said.
“Quite frankly, I was pleased with what I was seeing. I think the first two years and three days Couch was police chief, things were going well.”
There had been a significant effort to fight drugs on the streets and other successes.
“For the first two years and three days, I trusted this man,” Partington said. Then, in March after Couch had returned from a conference, Partington saw a different person.
After that, their relationship collapsed and problems between the two started to spiral out of control. He stopped meeting with Partington and started trying to circumvent Partington in running the GBPD.
“I know Couch did all this personally for himself,” Partington said. “He couldn’t care less about any other human being on earth. I absolutely, unequivocally, think the world of those other department heads. I hung in there to try and protect them. They didn’t like what was going on.
“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.
“He has tried to throw his heart, body and is soul into finding something I had ever done that could possibly be illegal so he could go to the KBI and get me charged,” Partington said. “That was his goal in life.”
Another goal for Coach, both Allison and Partington said, was to find another job in another city.
Regardless of Couch’s motives, Partington and Allison said they had no idea of what is store for Great Bend. As it unfolded, they couldn’t have been more shocked.