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Council keeps fire, police chiefs' fates in Mayor's hands

by CRAIG NORTHRUP
Staff Writer | September 16, 2020 1:00 AM

The Coeur d’Alene City Council voted against affording police and fire chiefs council protections Tuesday night, choosing instead to keep the two positions at-will and eligible to be fired by City Hall and the mayor without warning.

Council member Dan Gookin offered the change to the city’s personnel rules as a mechanism to protect the positions currently held by fire chief Ken Gabriel and police chief Lee White. Gookin told The Press he was bringing forward the proposal in an effort to give both positions some form of job security almost every other city employee enjoys.

“Both are high-profile officials that can be fired by a mayor,” Gookin hypothesized. “If a mayor’s house catches fire, and that mayor calls Kenny, and the chief tells that mayor to call 9-1-1, that mayor could get angry and fire the chief, and the council would be left holding the bag.”

The timing of Gookin’s motion points to a less-than-hypothetical scenario with White. White was the presumptive subject of an Aug. 18 executive session, this less than two hours after members of the Coeur d’Alene Police Department rallied around him to demonstrate support for the chief.

While Gookin didn’t reference the Aug. 18 meeting, he did say recent events nationwide and here in Coeur d’Alene drove his decision to come forward with the resolution.

“I thought, since the fire chief and police chief are high-profile employees,” he told the council, “these are not like the other department heads — and we love them — but when it comes to, say, hiring or terminating one of them, it makes the news. It’s pretty much on the news, especially in these times, when you see a lot of police chiefs around the country who are under political pressure and end up either leaving their job or being terminated because of just all the stuff that’s been going on in the country right now.”

Several police chiefs across the country have either resigned or been terminated over the summer as a result of police misconduct revelations in the wake of the George Floyd killing in late May. More recently, several fire officials have met similar fates — including Oregon fire marshal Jim Walker, who found missing people on behalf of an employee in the midst of the Beachie Creek blaze — after unprecedented wildfires along the west coast.

Gookin said returning Coeur d’Alene’s policy to its pre-2015 state, when a council majority was required to sign off on such terminations, would fall in line with a more open system.

“I thought it would be good to restore what we once had ... and have council approval, so there would be more of an open, transparent process to this,” Gookin said. “I know no one in council likes to read about something in the paper in the morning and then have to deal with phone calls regarding a decision that was made that we don’t have any say-so in.”

Gookin sought and received the approval of both the Coeur d’Alene Firefighters Local 710 and the Coeur d’Alene Police Association, as well as fellow council member Christie Wood.

“What’s happening across the nation, with both fire chiefs and police chiefs being brought forward for termination for a number of things,” Wood said. “I think the more collective body that is involved in those decisions, the better. This mayor has been good about holding executive session sand letting this council weigh in, but it’s not about the mayor. It’s not about a person. It’s about moving forward in the future with policies, about the overall body, not people. I do support this. I do support the wishes of police and fire to see it happen, and I thank Dan for bringing it forward.”

Council member Kiki Miller came as close as anyone ever has to publicly revealing perceived strife between City Hall and the police department when she said the council’s role was to direct responsible policy, rather than solve personality conflicts.

“I think that we have a very opinionated mayor,” Miller told the council, “we have a very strong police chief, we have some very dedicated but different-perspectived new council members, and some council members who are very outspoken about some things and very passionate about this. We aren’t always going to agree on things, but I feel like using potential personality conflicts and creating ordinances surrounding that may not be good government.”

Mayor Steve Widmyer, who did not vote in the matter, said he trusts the council to continue to craft sound policies, and that the governing body’s input in the city’s decisions is paramount.

“I think (the) council is comfortable with the current personnel process,” Widmyer said after the meeting. “It works and has proven to operate in the best interest of the employees and the city.”

Wood and Gookin were the only ‘aye’ votes. The motion failed 4-2.