The first two days after Denison City Manager/City Engineer Terry Crawford, City Clerk Lisa Koch and Fire Chief Cory Snowgren were put on leave could not have been handled much worse than they were.
Rumors love a vacuum and that’s all that existed for nearly 48 hours after the December 18 city council meeting was canceled.
Mayor Jared Beymer told the Bulletin and Review that a press release would be forthcoming the next day, Wednesday, December 19.
By Wednesday morning, everyone in Denison already knew Crawford, Koch and Snowgren had been put on leave – and (wildly inaccurate) rumors were already in the air about why.
When no press release arrived by midafternoon on that Wednesday, Beymer told the Bulletin and Review that he was having difficulty getting a lawyer to approve the language of the statement; the city’s lawyers had left town for the Christmas holiday and a law firm in Des Moines was not responding to his requests.
On Thursday, December 20, the Bulletin and Review contacted Assistant City Clerk Terra Sell at city hall and was told that Crawford, Koch and Snowgren had been placed on paid leave, pending an investigation.
The city’s press release, which finally arrived at 3:07 p.m. that day (nearly two days after the city council meeting had been canceled), contained even less information by not naming the employees put on leave.
The release did state, in part, “…the City cautions the public that no conclusions have been made at this time, therefore there should be no presumption of wrongdoing with regard to any City employee.”
Following the long-overdue initial announcement, little additional information was released by the city concerning the investigation.
Although many found this to be frustrating, good legal reasons exist for not releasing information about personnel investigations.
Governmental bodies routinely conduct business concerning personnel matters out of the public eye. Breaches of information concerning the questions can lead to lawsuits because the release of a question can be seen as an accusation against the person.
Which, one might assume, was the point of a release by Mark Sherinian (Koch and Crawford’s attorney) on January 7, in which he listed multiple “accusations” made by Beymer and Curnyn against Crawford, Koch and Snowgren.
Beymer and Curnyn have made no “accusations” in public, of course. The most either has said is that they had concerns they believed should be investigated.
Sherinian’s release came after investigator James Gilliam had determined that Koch, Crawford and Snowgren had not acted illegally or with malicious intent.
When his report was released, however, Gilliam noted “…decisions were made in an environment where the Council was exercising less than full oversight and control over administration decisions and the administrators, taking advantage of that lack of Council control, usurped the Council’s policy-making authority.”
“City administrators developed a habit of under-informing (City) Council of their actions and becoming defensive when the Council asked legitimate questions,” his report also states.
Gilliam’s report made recommendations for corrective action to be taken by Koch and Crawford – and by members of the city council.
The report exposed dysfunction within the city administration and city council and, because of this, revealed itself to be a useful exercise.
In a less-volatile environment, the city council might have discussed the report and simply implemented the changes.
Attorney Jessica Zupp convinced the city council to not discuss the report in a closed session, by all appearances, by making some of the council members fear that they could be personally liable for violating Iowa statutes by going into a closed session to discuss the matter.
Jennifer Zupp (representing Snowgren) and Sherinian assured the city council that they had no intention of pursuing legal action against the city - at present - which they said negated the lawfulness of going into a closed session to discuss matters concerning lawsuits or potential lawsuits.
The council then voted 3-2 not to go into closed session, disregarding the advice of Ann Kendell of BrownWinick.
At that point, the city council should have done one of two things: discussed the legal question privately with counsel or adjourned the meeting and sought additional advice.
The very last thing they should have done was discuss the report, which concerned personnel issues, in a public meeting.
But discuss it in public is what they did, all the while angry members of the audience verbally flogged them for having looked into the issues in the first place.
Sherinian’s press releases have inflamed many community members by morphing investigative questions behind closed doors into public accusations – but it’s important to remember that nobody from the city has accused anyone of anything.
If Sherinian wants to release the private questions and frame them as public accusations, that’s on him and on his clients.
It’s also worth noting that Koch and Crawford also authorized the public release of personnel information concerning the hiring and salary of a subordinate city employee and made a personal jab at the police chief when authorizing the release of the investigator’s questions and their answers. They did not stop being city employees when they were put on leave and should have had the sense to redact that information from the release.
So now we’re faced with, perhaps, a lawsuit on behalf of one or more of the employees against the city.
Perhaps the subordinate city employee mentioned in Sherinian’s release will want to sue, also.
The short summary released by Gilliam tells the end result of his investigation, but it does not detail the specifics of who usurped the city council’s policy-making authority, how the city council was under-informed or the circumstances of how one or both of the administrators became defensive when the council asked legitimate questions.
The lawyers for the employees have said they will release everything they have instead of the city paying for additional detail – but that would be an incomplete substitute for knowing what Gilliam learned when comparing records, contracts and multiple accounts of events.
If a lawsuit arrives, the city is going to want every scrap of that information. It would be foolish to commission the investigation and then not get all of the details.
The city should pay for an in-depth final report.