City council excludes memo reporting police complaints

Council votes 4-3 to remove memo from agenda on procedural grounds

The Cordova Police Department and Cordova Volunteer Fire Department offices, and The Cordova Center. (March 23, 2021) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

At a March 17 meeting, Cordova City Council narrowly voted to remove from its agenda a memo suggesting that all city departments be periodically evaluated. The memo focused mainly on the Cordova Police Department, and reported public concern over officers’ alleged failure to wear masks while on duty; the department’s alleged non-compliance with council mandates and rules; and on-duty officers allegedly “singling out individuals and harassing them,” among other issues.

The memo, authored by Vice Mayor Melina Meyer and Councilman Jeff Guard, was submitted roughly one month after Police Chief Nate Taylor was disciplined for breaking city social distancing rules, contributing to a local novel coronavirus outbreak.

“What’s really concerning to me is what I’ve been hearing about people, that they don’t feel comfortable talking about these things in public and putting their names on it,” Meyer said. “As a representative, I think it’s my job to put my name on these things for the people… It’s not about anyone individually in the department.”

However, the memo was sharply criticized on procedural grounds. Councilman David Glasen said that public complaints like those expressed in the memo should be brought to the city manager rather than to city council.

“We’re not here to tell the manager how to run the departments, other than funding,” Councilman David Allison said.

Councilwoman Cathy Sherman suggested that city council work sessions be scheduled to discuss different departments, so as not to supersede the authority of the city manager. Sherman supported the removal of the memo from the agenda, but said she hoped to see it return “in a different form.”

Guard argued that Cordova’s city charter enables city council to deal directly with issues like those reported in the memo. Guard cited charter section 2-4, which states that city council is empowered to “inquire into the conduct of any office, department or agency of the city, and investigate municipal affairs.” Meyer said that she had informed City Manager Helen Howarth of the memo before proposing it.

“This is just a discussion about the department,” Guard said. “It doesn’t have to be the only department we look at. It’s a good idea to look at the function of how the whole city works. But it is within our powers to do this. It’s not stepping over the top of Helen or any of that… It’s not trying to throw stones at a department.”

A public opinion survey commissioned by the city in 2020 found that 50% of Cordovans were satisfied with the police department’s performance and that 21% were dissatisfied. The survey also found that residents wanted tougher enforcement of drug laws. However, Councilman Tom Bailer said that city council never adequately discussed the data yielded by the survey. Returning to discuss that survey would provide a more appropriate alternative to Meyer and Guard’s memo, Bailer contended.

“If you go down this road with the way this is written up on this agenda tonight, I think you’re going to find yourself in trouble,” Bailer said. “In fact, I think this should be saved and used as council training on how not to put something on the agenda.”

City council voted 4-3 to remove the memo from the agenda, with Allison, Bailer, Glasen and Sherman voting to remove the memo, and Guard, Meyer and Anne Schaefer voting not to remove the memo. The memo can be found on pages 69-70 of the council’s March 17 meeting packet, or at cdv.tiny.us/policememo.

Guard voiced exasperation with the council’s decision.

“If we can’t sit down here at this table, between us, and have a civil discussion about where we’d like to see things going in Cordova, how do we expect our citizens to do it?” Guard said. “Go look at social media and see what’s going around on social media, as we all savage each other over these issues like this. It really does not seem much like leadership to me, and it doesn’t seem much like an open and honest democracy.”

Following the vote, Mayor Clay Koplin said he believed that policy discussions and provisions did fall under the purview of council, and that it was proper for council to determine whether departments were under proper management. Koplin declined to weigh in prior to the vote in order not to influence its outcome, he said.

Howarth said she did not personally feel that Meyer and Guard had gone over her head by submitting the memo, but acknowledged the council’s power to set its own expectations.

“If [city council] told me to go do something in a way that I, personally, did not want to go, it doesn’t matter, because I work for them,” Howarth said. “I do the work that they feel is essential for city operations.”

Howarth recommended that concerns regarding the police department be brought to the city manager or to a city council member. Complainants’ identities would be kept private to the extent permitted by the circumstances of the complaint, Howarth said. Howarth will be on vacation until Friday, April 2, with Public Works Director Samantha Greenwood serving as acting city manager during the interim.

Taylor declined to comment on the memo.