Anonymous complaints cost Nevada City $22.5k, and its police chief
January 31, 2014
As Nevada City's first full-time police chief in four years nears his first full day on the job in February, it comes with a price.
The cost of Nevada City expanding the police chief's position to full time from part time, almost six months earlier than budgeted, is at least $22,500, according to Assistant City Manager Catrina Olson, the city's finance manager.
The city had originally budgeted for its part-time police chief, Jim Wickham, to remain in that capacity through at least the end of the 2013/14 fiscal year, until a full-time chief was to be recruited.
But Wickham, a retiree from Mill Valley's police department, was ordered out of the Nevada City position by the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) following at least two anonymous complaints about him and the city's tactic of hiring part-time annuitants to cut costs during the financial economic crisis.
“A personal agenda was involved here. So they got the last word because I couldn’t fight (CalPERS).”
Former Nevada City Police Chief Jim Wickham
From where those complaints originated is a matter of speculation.
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Wickham was not the only retired leader in Nevada City who was able to supplement his part-time income with a pension. City Manager David Brennan, City Attorney Hal DeGraw and City Engineer Bill Falconi have since been redefined as consultants to avoid CalPERS' scrutiny.
Brennan has long argued that the approach saved the city millions of dollars by avoiding full-time benefit contributions, while at the same time staffing key roles with people who have years of experience.
Wickham was hired in March 2012 as a part-time police chief to tide the city over until its revenues returned to a point that it could support a full-time chief. In November 2012, voters approved Measure L, a 3/8-cent sales tax hike, to prop up city services for five years.
During his tenure, Wickham enacted a number of policies that were controversial. He pushed a smoking ban to tackle marijuana smoking in the downtown area, a no-camping ordinance to curb homeless and vagrancy issues, negotiated a consolidation of area law enforcement dispatch centers, and led a collaborative policing arrangement that has Grass Valley officers patrolling Nevada City streets and sharing a detective between the two departments.
"Quite simply, I have heard nothing but 100 percent positive things about this arrangement," Councilman Duane Strawser said at the Jan. 8 meeting where the cooperative policing trial period was unanimously approved to expand into a one-year formal arrangement.
Nevada City was made aware of the first anonymous complaint to CalPERS in March 2013, right after the camping ordinance went into effect and around the time Wickham's employment contract expired.
At the time, Wickham was also involved with some behind-the-scenes negotiations with Officer Tim Ewing, representative of the Police Officers Association (POA), over whether already-written contracts meant the city would cover the cost of officers' tactical vests as part of their uniforms, Ewing said.
"I don't think there was any ill will from anyone in the department toward Jim, that was just a contentious issue," Ewing said.
The city eventually did cover the vest costs, but only after the threat of legal action from the officers' association, Ewing said.
"If somebody called (CalPERS), they called them and it had nothing to do with me," Ewing said, noting he had surgery around that time. "I was in a hospital bed."
City documents obtained by The Union note that Ewing's wife, who is the stepdaughter of City Councilwoman Terri Andersen, had been a vocal critic of Wickham on social media. The city attorney and city manager advised Andersen that her relationship to Ewing did not constitute a conflict of interest when voting on policing matters, she said.
The city was able to satiate CalPERS' first anonymously spurred contentions by reclassifying Wickham as the "interim" police chief and initiating an active recruitment process for a full-time chief, six months ahead of schedule.
"I think everybody has theories of who was doing it," Ewing said.
"I don't think anybody from within the department had anything to do with it."
In April 2013, Wickham's contract was renewed with a 5 percent, $6,600 pay raise, up from $48,000 annually, with a provision that lasted one full year or, Olson said, longer if a full-time chief was not recruited.
When the contract renewal was up for city council's approval on the April 24 consent calendar (items not expected to need discussion), Andersen requested the item be pulled for debate and raised concerns about an interim chief setting long-range policies, according to that meeting's minutes. She also took issue with Wickham's pay increase, citing city employees' furloughs.
Andersen was the lone, 4-1 dissenting vote in approving Wickham's new contract.
In May 2013, a law firm representing the POA filed a salary grievance, accusing the city of not honoring its obligation to provide annual salary adjustments to officers, according to city documents.
In early June 2013, a second anonymous complaint against Wickham was filed with CalPERS by someone who referred to themselves as "an annuitant myself," according to a copy obtained by The Union.
"It is appalling that the City and the Police Chief are circumventing the system for their mutual benefit and have been from the outset," the complaint reads.
Less than a week later, Andersen's husband, a retiree from a 30-year law enforcement career in Mountain View and a CalPERS annuitant, spoke against the cooperative policing proposal at a Nevada City Council meeting, as a member of the public.
"It is truly unfortunate that our police department has chosen to make uniformed, proactive patrol in city neighborhoods something less than the number-one priority that it is in every other department I've been involved in," Tom Andersen said at that meeting.
"As far as I am concerned, this plan (as it is written) is deeply flawed. It is supported by an incomplete, poor staff report and it is dangerous."
Terri Andersen was the most critical council member of the proposal that night, and was the lone dissenter on a 4-1 vote directing Wickham and Brennan to meet with their Grass Valley counterparts to more specifically articulate how Grass Valley officers would patrol Nevada City streets, as well as keep track of incidents and response times for monthly reports.
"My understanding is that she made independent decisions without ever discussing them with her (step) son-in-law, the POA president," Wickham said.
A redrafted proposal was unanimously adopted by the council two weeks later, with Andersen expressing satisfaction with the end result.
Andersen, the council member next in line to serve as the town's mayor, said she was not the source of the anonymous complaints; and further said neither her husband nor her stepdaughter took such action.
"I wasn't even aware that happened," she said. "My only knowledge of dealings with CalPERS is through the city manager. I didn't know there was any tip-offs."
In September 2013, CalPERS instructed Wickham to vacate his position by early October or retroactively pay six months worth of benefits to the tune of about $100,000.
If Wickham remained, the city would also have to retroactively pay about $50,000.
"If they would have let me stay as chief, I would have fulfilled my contract," Wickham said. "If there wasn't another complaint, I could still be there right now."
Former NCPD Lt. Lorin Gage, who retired in late December 2012, denied he had anything to do with the CalPERS complaints.
"I had 32 years (in the department) and the city treated me well," Gage said. "What happened after my time there was no concern of mine."
Wickham's last day was Sept. 30. He was replaced by interim Police Chief Scott Berry, a retired Truckee Police Department chief. Former San Francisco Police Lt. Tim Foley is scheduled to start as a full-time chief in Nevada City in early February.
Because Berry already lived in Grass Valley, there was virtually no formal recruitment process and his pay equaled that of Wickham's, Olson said.
"It took very little staff time," Olson said. "Bringing Berry in was almost seamless, with no additional expenditures."
Had CalPERS not pushed the city to recruit a full-time police chief earlier than budgeted, the city manager's position was poised to be made full-time before the police chief.
Brennan has expressed no desire to shift into the full-time manager's position. But with the money budgeted to expand that position now allocated to a full-time police chief, initiation of the recruitment for a full-time manager has been pushed back until fiscal year 2014-15, Olson said, thereby delaying Brennan's departure.
Wickham has theories of who submitted the anonymous complaints, but would not further speculate.
"A personal agenda was involved here," he said. "So they got the last word because I couldn't fight (CalPERS)."
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.
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