Police officers are seething over a secret severance deal the city administration gave to an officer who resigned after some work-related problems.
City officials also placed a gag order on employees to prevent them from talking about officer Phil Terry's job performance or departure April 12. Workers who disregard the first-of-its-kind directive in American Fork face disciplinary action, including termination, according to an April 17 memo issued by city administrator Carl T. Wanlass.When asked about the matter, Mayor Jess Green said he couldn't say much at this time.
Wanlass pretended to lock his lips and throw away the key. Police Chief John Durrant declined to comment, fearing he could lose his job. City Council members said they aren't familiar enough with the situation to discuss it.
The city refuses to release documents related to the issue. It denied a Deseret News request under the Government Records Access and Management Act for a copy of the settlement.
The severance package likely comes mostly from taxpayer funds. American Fork also refused to release a police or initial contact report of an incident involving the officer in a shopping center parking lot.
City recorder Richard Colborn stated the records are "private" in a denial letter sent to the newspaper Monday. Colborn said he consulted city attorney Tucker Hansen before signing the letter.
Settlement agreements and police reports are public record, according to state law. "The denial of access to these records is unlawful," said Jeff Hunt, a Salt Lake attorney who runs the Freedom of Information Hotline.
The denial can be appealed. In American Fork, the mayor considers such appeals.
While the severance package raised eyebrows in the police department, American Fork's hush-hush handling of the matter is cause for deeper concern. "It raises questions as to why they're trying to conceal these records," Hunt said. "Public entities are to transact business in public. This is directly contrary to that."
Terry said he wanted to talk with his attorney before saying much about the deal. "It's not that big of a thing," he said. The agreement protects him, he said. Terry also said he did nothing wrong.
"He got no consideration I would not have given any other person who was requested to resign," Green said. "I feel good about what I did. I feel honest about what I did."
The Deseret News obtained several interoffice memos relating to the issue.
Some city officials wanted Terry, an 11-year veteran, fired based partly on use of a patrol car for personal business and other problems that affected his job, according to a memo Green sent police officers and some department heads April 25. Based on some of those factors, Green wanted to avoid a grievance hearing or possible lawsuit.
"In the position I'm in, I get blessed with decisions like this. I weighed all the factors and possible implications of each alternative, then decided to work out a resignation," Green wrote.
According to Green's memo, the agreement was negotiated among him, city staff (likely Wanlass and Hansen), a police union attorney and Terry. The police chief was excluded from the talks.
Police officers believe the agreement violates the Employee Retirement Security Act, according to a memo sent to Green April 25. Officers say the severance pay and health benefits package was over and above what city policy allows. They complained that the agreement provided compensation not available to all city employees.
In their letter, officers request a copy of the settlement. They have not received one.
Officers also say in the memo that the city did not place the same gag on Terry as part of the agreement. They know few details about the settlement, details they apparently heard from Terry.
When Green learned Terry approached officers with a "glowing" report of his resignation, the mayor wrote in his April 25 memo that it was imperative those officers speak to him privately.
Green told the police department that all outside requests for references or information about Terry's work on the force must be forwarded to him or Wanlass. "A brief form letter will be sent in response to a request," the mayor wrote. The order effectively stifles the police chief or other department supervisors from providing would-be employers an evaluation of his performance.
The entire issue nearly came to a head last Tuesday night when Green placed it on the City Council agenda. The agenda called for a police representative to make a presentation.
The police department refused to attend, saying discussing the issue would violate the mayor's standing order to keep quiet. Officers also in a June 10 memo said that publicly airing it would embarrass the city and cause residents to lose confidence.
Officers wanted to discuss the matter with the mayor and council behind closed doors. But such a meeting would not meet requirements of the Utah Open and Public Meetings Act. The council did not talk about the issue in open or closed session last Tuesday.
In a May 22 memo, police officers reserved the right to file a formal grievance against the city administration and hire outside legal counsel. The city's grievance committee has not received a complaint from officers.