In the wake of Police Chief Jon Elder’s leave of absence for stress-related health problems, Mayor G. Monty Manibog has accused two council members of conducting “a vicious witch hunt” against the chief and his department.
One of the two councilmen criticized by Manibog says the mayor is being overly protective of the Police Department. And another council member, who was not the target of Manibog’s criticism, says the mayor is making unsubstantiated charges.
The increasingly bitter exchanges between the council members began last Friday at a press conference when Manibog and Councilman Cam Briglio denounced council members Barry L. Hatch and Patricia Reichenberger for undertaking what the mayor called a campaign against Elder “based largely on hearsay complaints.” Manibog said he became aware in early August that Hatch and Reichenberger had been investigating the Police Department, probably since shortly after they were elected to the council last April.
“This conduct, as far as I’m concerned, is to be condemned as un-American, undemocratic and unfair and amounts to a vicious witch hunt without any substance at all,” Manibog said.
Manibog released copies of a memo he wrote to City Manager Lloyd de Llamas on Aug. 18 comparing what “looks to me like a campaign to get the chief” to the Salem witch trials in the 1600s and “the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s.”
In interviews this week, Hatch and Reichenberger rejected the charge, insisting that they were just doing their jobs as council members when they asked questions of the city manager and some police officers about how the department was being run. They denied that they want to oust Elder, who has been on medical leave for more than a month.
“I think we have a very good Police Department,” Reichenberger said, adding that she does not understand how her questioning can be construed as a witch hunt. “I always go through proper channels to ask questions,” she said.
Hatch said: “It’s incumbent on us to ask questions of all departments.”
The only thing unusual, Hatch said, has been the mayor’s reaction.
‘Shake a Few Feathers’
“Any department that is being so protected by the mayor, maybe we should shake a few feathers and see what’s there,” he said.
Hatch said Manibog is “totally out of line” in charging that a witch hunt is under way. “We’re not trying to harass anybody,” he said. “He’s blown it out of proportion.”
But, Hatch added, “we’re definitely not going to stop asking questions.”
Chris Houseman, the fifth member of the council, defended Hatch and Reichenberger in an interview and said that Manibog is making unsupported accusations against the two. Houseman said that he does not share Manibog’s concern about the reported investigation of the Police Department and that the mayor was wrong in linking him to such concerns at the press conference.
“I support the right of council members to voice concerns and ask questions,” Houseman said. “Everybody has the right to ask questions.”
The controversy began Aug. 6 when Elder began a paid leave of absence. City officials said a doctor who examined the chief three weeks ago recommended that he stay away from city business for at least a month. Elder has been unavailable for comment about the controversy.
Deputy Chief Robert Collins, who is now running the department, said Elder has experienced stomach problems and sleeplessness and quoted the chief as attributing his ill health to stress. City officials said Elder has not told them when he plans to return.
At the time Elder went out on leave, Manibog said that it was a “good guess” that the police chief had been feeling pressure from some City Council members.
Manibog and Briglio called the press conference last week after a Monterey Park newspaper, the News Digest, published a story that quoted Reichenberger as saying that she and Hatch were investigating the Police Department, “playing hardball,” and seeking an honest department.
Manibog said the inference he drew was that Reichenberger and Hatch think the Police Department is dishonest. The mayor wrote a memo to his colleagues Friday, calling the inference of dishonesty “a damaging, unfair and vicious attack on our police personnel that cannot be justified.”
‘Cheap Witch Hunt’
In the memo he released at the press conference, Manibog added, “What hurts even more is that no substantial evidence justifying the investigation has been brought out, which makes it no more than a cheap witch hunt.”
Briglio said Reichenberger and Hatch should share any derogatory information about the Police Department with the council, and should not be conducting a probe on their own. “Our job is to make policy, not to be out there as policemen,” Briglio said.
Reichenberger and Hatch said they have no evidence of dishonesty and denied that they are looking into any specific complaint of corruption. In fact, Reichenberger said “investigation” may be too strong a word to describe what is essentially a quest for information about the department’s operations. Both council members said they have simply asked questions about staffing, deployment of police cars and similar matters, and most of their inquiries have gone through the city manager rather than directly to police officers.
Reichenberger said her reference to “playing hardball” meant only that she and Hatch were serious in dealing with city problems, ranging from planning to city code enforcement, and she was not singling out the Police Department.
In his Aug. 18 memo to the city manager, Manibog asked for a report from the deputy police chief on all contacts between police officers and Hatch and Reichenberger. Manibog said the report was prepared, but is confidential. He declined to describe the report but in a memo to council members on Aug. 20, Manibog said he regarded the report as “totally credible and factual” and he hoped that it would persuade Hatch and Reichenberger to “realize and concede to mistakes having been made on their part.”
“The bottom line,” Manibog wrote, “is there must be a backing away from a course of action that is destroying our Police Department and the career of a 27-year veteran of the department, the last 10 years as department head.”
But Houseman said he has read all the reports on police contacts with the two council members and he does not see evidence of a witch hunt. He said all members of the council have supported the Police Department and all have agreed that they want Elder to return to work as soon as his health permits.
Houseman said Monterey Park has a strong Police Department and that any personnel problems within it should be handled by the council in closed session, not aired in public. “I’m against anyone using the chief as a political football,” he said.
Manibog this week reiterated a charge that Hatch had asked City Manager Lloyd de Llamas to dismiss Elder before the chief took medical leave and that De Llamas refused. Hatch denied asking for Elder’s dismissal. De Llamas said he will not comment on what is a political dispute.
Hatch declined to comment about Elder, saying that the chief’s report of being injured by job-related stress raises liability questions for the city.
“My hands are tied in commenting on the police chief,” Hatch said.