Police Chief Terry Hart was fired after he stopped being a "team player," National City Mayor George Waters said Thursday.
Hart, who served as chief for about nine years, was ordered by City Manager Tom McCabe to vacate his office by 5 p.m. Thursday. In a letter released Wednesday, McCabe told Hart that he would be placed on paid administrative leave for 30 days and his dismissal would become effective April 24.
Waters praised Hart, 47, for having done a "good job" as head of the city's 75-man department. "But in the last year, Chief Hart has not become a team player with the City Council," Waters said.
The mayor also complained that Hart's management philosophy clashed with McCabe's, who was Hart's immediate superior and apparently behind the move to fire him. According to Hart, McCabe offered to buy him out on the condition that he not talk to the media about his dismissal. Hart said he turned down that offer.
High Mark in Review
The firing was surprising in light of the high mark given Hart in September in a job performance review by McCabe. The review, dated Sept. 1, 1987, said that Hart's performance "exceeds expectations," second only to the top rating of "outstanding."
During an interview in his office while he packed boxes, Hart made no attempt to hide his dislike for McCabe, whom he called "unethical" and "deceiving."
McCabe did not return several phone calls. But Waters said the decision to fire Hart was made in part after the police chief disagreed with McCabe over a $145,000 deficit in the Police Department's $6.5-million budget, which Waters said accounts for 26% of the city budget.
"When you look at $6.5 million and the size of our city, it's almost a million dollars per square mile," Waters said. "I don't think the city manager has shortchanged the Police Department. Terry's done a good job over the years, but for some reason he has fallen back on his management responsibilities."
However, Waters said Hart's falling out with the City Council began before the November election, when National City voters rejected a bond measure that would have raised property taxes by $35 per year so the city could build another police building.
In a speech before a community group, Hart said that if the proposition was not approved he would quit and take 30 officers with him. The measure failed and Waters said that the voters rejected it because they did not like Hart's threats.
"A lot of people commented to me that they were not going to vote for it for that reason. He done himself some damage," Waters said. "I told him, 'You made a serious mistake there. I would appreciate it if you quiet down and let the City Council handle it.' "
Hart admitted he made the remarks but denied they were meant as a threat, and he called charges that he was responsible for the measure's defeat "poppycock."
"I did say that and I apologized. . . . I have been working for a new facility now for four years. . . . It would be a symbol of quality police services for the next 20 years," Hart said. "I told them that if that thing did not get built, there were going to be about 30 officers leaving the department. . . . I did say that if that (new building) was not a reality, I would leave eventually. But it wasn't a threat. Some people reacted to it in a negative way."
Hart agreed with Waters' charge that there was a difference in the management style between him and McCabe. But Hart said McCabe was intent on running the Police Department and wanted him to play the role of assistant city manager or "delegate to the department."
Department Comes First
"He wanted me to be a 'yes man' to the city manager," Hart said. "I told him that my first responsibility was to the department and the officers who patrol the streets. I was hired to administer the Police Department, not to administer the department for McCabe and in the way that he saw fit."
Waters said that McCabe and the City Council did not agree with Hart's view of who should run the department and how it should be administered.
"Mr. Hart thought that he was hired to run the Police Department exclusively. . . . The truth is that he was hired to run the department for the people of this town, and in doing that he reports to the city manager," Waters said.
Over the years, Hart and the department have come under intense criticism by Latino residents and other law enforcement officials because of their rough treatment of Latino suspects. In a 1987 interview with The Times, Hart said that "National City has a reputation for being a kick-ass, take-names type of department."
However, city officials said criticism of Hart and the department had nothing to do with the decision to fire him.
Came to Head in December
According to Hart, the differences between McCabe and him came to a head in December, when McCabe complained about the amount of overtime paid to police officers and asked Hart to eliminate a $145,000 deficit from the department's budget.
In a meeting in December, McCabe ordered him to fire police officers in order to balance the budget, Hart said. He resisted, and McCabe said he would have to issue a directive, Hart added.
"McCabe never realized nor accepted the realities of police work," Hart said. "Crooks and cops don't work a fixed schedule. Much of the overtime was eaten up by special events and writing reports that have to be in the district attorney's office within 72 hours after we make an arrest."
Hart said he will appeal the firing and will try to get the council to re-examine his termination.