Retiring Costa Mesa police chief alleges he’s being forced out and has been threatened with investigations
Departing Costa Mesa Police Chief Rob Sharpnack has filed a claim against the city, alleging he is being forced out of his position after he raised issues about the most recent budget development process and what he considers the City Council’s “interference” in his department.
The city denied the assertions Monday.
“The city wishes Chief Sharpnack the best in his retirement,” said Costa Mesa spokesman Tony Dodero. “We are grateful for his service.”
Sharpnack’s claim, dated Nov. 8, alleges the city “discriminated and retaliated” against him after he complained about the council’s “improper interference into the affairs of the city Police Department” and about the budget process earlier this year.
“While Chief Sharpnack had planned and desired to end his law enforcement career with the city ... the city’s actions and omissions have made/are making this extremely difficult, if not impossible,” the claim states.
The claim doesn’t go into detail about the allegations of interference, and Sharpnack could not immediately be reached for further comment Monday.
When asked what interference Sharpnack might be referring to, Mayor Katrina Foley responded, “I have no idea.”
“We appreciate the hard work of our CMPD leadership team to rebuild our department,” Foley said Monday. “Our current council majority understands our role as policymakers, not managers, and support allowing the CMPD leadership to rebuild their department as they see appropriate to better serve our community.”
Sharpnack’s claim seeks more than $10,000 in damages for emotional distress, legal fees and the forfeiture of “five years of potential pension earnings.”
“The city’s acts and omissions may also result in additional significant future damage in potentially precluding Chief Sharpnack from obtaining future employment,” the claim states.
According to the claim, the city threatened Oct. 18 to fire Sharpnack, as well as launch “a retaliatory ‘investigation’ in order to manufacture nonexistent ‘cause’ in an attempt to force him to immediately ‘retire’ and/or to force him out on immediate ‘leave.’”
That day, Sharpnack told City Manager Lori Ann Farrell Harrison that he would be on vacation effective immediately, according to a memo obtained by the Daily Pilot.
The claim alleges that, despite Sharpnack being “ready, willing and able to return to work” Oct. 28, he was told the city “did not want him to do so and, if he did, he would be ‘investigated.’”
The claim is the latest example of the deteriorating relationship between some of the top brass at City Hall and Sharpnack, who was first hired as a custody officer in the city jail in 1993 and was promoted to chief in 2015.
Some of the first cracks began to show publicly in May, when Sharpnack sent a blistering memo to the City Council blasting the proposed 2019-20 budget, which he claimed shortchanged the Police Department and jeopardized public safety.
Costa Mesa’s top cop is crying foul over the city’s recent budget proposal, alleging that it shortchanges the Police Department in a way that imperils public safety.
During their meeting Tuesday, City Council members will review a proposed three-year plan to fund a list of projects in the Police Department, including some that Sharpnack had cited as particularly pressing.
Emails the Daily Pilot obtained through a public records request detail further strain regarding another point of contention: Sharpnack’s retirement.
Sharpnack confirmed his retirement plans to the Pilot on Oct. 18 and said his last day on the job would be Dec. 21. But emails show that the timing and nature of his announcement had been the subject of a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war for days.
On Oct. 15, Sharpnack sent Farrell Harrison a memo about his retirement and wrote that he felt he had “to share the information with my department no later than tomorrow.”
Farrell Harrison asked him to hold off, writing that “there should not be an announcement tomorrow, as we have no plan in place and that is of utmost importance.”
“While I understand your sense of urgency, as leaders in the organization, we have an obligation to the entire organization and the city we serve to be methodical and thoughtful about how and when this information is released,” she wrote.
Sharpnack took umbrage with that, replying on Oct. 16 that “the way I have been treated here has degraded and undermined my leadership.” He said he told Farrell Harrison of his retirement plans on Oct. 10 and had already agreed to delay notifying his department for a week.
“Your message to me comes off as very self-centered and political,” he wrote. “Isn’t this supposed to be a joyful moment for me? The main reason I have decided to leave my great Police Department is the fact [that] I am just sick of the micromanaging and controlling politics. I have seen many chiefs depart from this department and others over my 25-year career. I have yet to see what you are suggesting and certainly do not want to be part of some ‘staged’ dog and pony show.
“My legacy will stand on its own with the community, the city and my department,” he added. “The best advice I can give you is to honor my request and let me go quietly.”
Farrell Harrison responded that “rushing the announcement of your departure to your department can undermine the legacy of the proud leadership that you’ve had in the city.”
“Let’s ensure you depart with dignity,” she wrote. “You were just at the center of a large public debate in the press related to the budget. Going quietly means planning ahead to answer any questions that may arise and being able to answer obvious questions about what happens next.”
Dodero said the city manager has the “duty and responsibility to develop a succession plan to share with the City Council, staff and the public related to the city’s most critical leadership positions. A well-coordinated plan allows the city to proactively prepare for a change in leadership in a professional and orderly fashion.”
Farrell Harrison’s reply was time-stamped at 2:56 p.m. Oct. 16. However, records show Sharpnack had already informed his department of his impending departure by email roughly 45 minutes before.
The tussle didn’t stop there.
In an email later that day, then-acting Assistant City Manager Justin Martin — who has since taken a job with the city of Laguna Niguel — told Sharpnack that the city manager’s office would “take the lead on handling all public communications on this.”
Sharpnack, however, retorted that neither Martin “nor anyone at City Hall [has] any authority to speak for the chief of police” and wrote he was “concerned, given your desire to control the narrative of my retirement, especially in this politically motivated environment.”
“I realize you and the city manager are new to your leadership positions, but you need to know your place,” he wrote. “You need to stay in your own lane. I speak for myself.”
His message drew a lengthy response from Farrell Harrison the next morning.
“There is an important distinction between coordinating responses and controlling responses,” she wrote. “Regrettably, that nuance has escaped you.”
Farrell Harrison wrote that she had asked Sharpnack to work with her because “it’s a best practice at every level of government to avoid drama, disruption and chaos.”
“Quite frankly, I’m really stunned by your response,” she wrote. “The coordination of that process is absolutely the role of the city manager and it is squarely ‘in my lane,’ as you say.
“Your lack of experience with this is shocking, to be honest, but mostly it is unfortunate because your inexperience with a very routine matter has led to assumptions on your part about political motivations that are patently false and incorrect,” she said.
“As for the other insulting and disrespectful comments in your email, I respectfully decline to engage,” Farrell Harrison said. “I wish you luck in your retirement.”
Money writes for Times Community News.
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