Public comments run 46 minutes at Monday meeting
By Mike Courson
Prior to Monday’s big city council vote in Great Bend, several registered voters had the opportunity to address the council with concerns. Mayor Mike Allison stressed it would not be a question and answer segment due to time constraints, but several questions were ultimately answered.
The public comment portion of the meeting was supposed to be limited to 30 minutes but went some 46 minutes with several heated exchanges. The council later voted against reinstating Great Bend Chief of Police Cliff Couch. That story can be found by clicking here.
Jennifer Flick opened public comments by thanking the council for the opportunity to speak. She showed her support of Couch with an anecdote of Couch’s public service to an elderly neighbor who was worried someone was in her home.
“At 11:30 at night, Cliff got out of bed, he got dressed, he came down and spent 45 minutes with my elderly neighbor consoling her, making her feel respected, making her feel safe,” Flick said. “He canvassed her house, he went through her backyard, he inspected everything.
“That man stayed until almost 12:30 in the morning, on his personal time, on a phone call he received on his personal line, to care for an elderly neighbor. That’s the kind of police chief I want serving my community.”
Laura Millard, whose husband has been an officer in Great Bend for 19 years, was next to speak.
“(My husband) has told me, in his own experiences, that the last two years that Chief Couch has served here have been the best two years of his law enforcement career,” she said. “He and the other officers feel the morale of the police department has greatly improved. They feel he is absolutely representing them and their feelings of how the police department is going and how they are doing their job.”
Joseph Trimmer, a community event coordinator in Great Bend, was the third and final scheduled speaker at the meeting. He said he has respect for both Couch and Great Bend City Administrator Howard Partington, and wanted to remind people to keep arguments civil.
“The amount of hate that is being display and encouraged is just not right,” Trimmer said. “I, myself have seen numerous Facebook posts and claims of wrongdoing by the city of Great Bend and (City Administrator Howard) Partington. I have commented on those posts, asking people to realize we have only been given one side of the story and we need to wait for the other side to be stated before we make judgment or claim which side is right or wrong.
“With doing so, I have been messaged and threatened and called a hypocrite and told people would organize a picket for my parade, a parade that is set to honor our local law enforcement, which would include Chief Couch.
“I have been doing events in the city the last three years and I have to say I look up to Chief Couch and Mr. Partington, both,” Trimmer continued. “The backlash that has been brought on other city members due to this disagreement is completely unacceptable. To see the city officials on Facebook bashing the very place they work is unacceptable.
“I beg you, Mr. Mayor and city council, to somehow make a public press release or statement that sheds some light on the full story. That way people know what’s going on and not just part of the story.
“It is also important to me that we as a community remember that while fighting for one side of this situation we remember that initially, the reason people started the Support Chief Couch movement was because people believed he was being harassed and bullied. That being said, how is it okay that people harass other parties involved, or even worse, parties that have nothing to do with the issue between Chief Couch and Mr. Partington?”
Becky Wornkey took the microphone to ask council why Chief Couch has spent between $7,000 and $10,000 of his own money on attorneys while city officials have not had to spend out of pocket.
“We said this was not a question and answer session, but Mr. Partington has received no financial help from the city with any attorneys,” Mayor Allison said. “The governing body has hired an attorney that represents the entire governing body.”
Leslie Halbower Barrett spoke next and asked if the city had done anything about a corruption hotline that had once been suggested by the city auditor.
“I have ordered the cards for our company ID,” said City Clerk Shawna Shafer. “We are currently going through Safe Hotline. This was something I had just gotten done last week. I have not rolled it out to the city yet until I receive those cards. I’m hoping their next paycheck will have those cards to give to the employees.”
Barrett also read a section of the city handbook to show Couch may have been following policy when he made accusations of corruption that ultimately led to his suspension at a July 24 special council meeting.
Bryan Harris delivered the next speech. “In the 25 years I’ve lived here, I have not ever seen anything like this, even with Seaboard and the big ditch and such,” he said. “Mr. Mayor, you and I have had several discussions over the years and I consider you a friend. However, in life we learn certain rules. One, you always look both ways before you cross the street. You never stick your finger in a light socket. And you never poke a sleeping bear.
“Mayor, you poked the bear.”
Harris also used his time to recognize Hillary King, the woman behind the hundreds of blue and white hand-painted signs in support of Couch. King was given a standing ovation by the crowd.
“Mr. Mayor, council, the other rule you should know is you never mess with a mama bear,” Harris said. “Out in the audience, we have a mama bear that is all of five feet tall. She has done more the last two weeks to bring this community together than I have seen ever. This mama bear has had the support of the citizenry of Great Bend, private businessmen, and one of the largest employers in Great Bend, which is very unheard of in this day and age.
Someday this mama bear is going to tell this story to her little cubs. All they know now is their mama has looked like a Smurf the last two weeks.”
Harris closed his remarks by reminding council there was a way to fix the problem. “The ending can be that you go back to executive session and talk it over,” he said. “It’s already gotten way out of proportion. Now we have lawyers involved. And really talk this through and look out for the citizenry that voted you to where you are today. These are the people you work for. We don’t work for you.”
Mike Harbaugh had several questions for the mayor and council. First he wanted to know when the public could ask questions to the council. Allison again said they were trying to keep the meeting to a reasonable time.
“I understand that, Mr. Mayor, but there are so many unanswered questions this group has,” Harbaugh answered. “You and the council are doing nothing to alleviate the concerns the citizenry has.”
“When we have executive sessions, we really aren’t supposed to bring out of executive session anything that was discussed in there,” Allison said. “Some of our problems are, if we talk out of turn, we have violated those ethics. I can’t help it.”
A discussion followed about how to bring that information from the closed session into the open. “One of our other policies set a long time ago was to place things on the agenda, follow the agenda, and if something like this is wanting to be on the agenda, it will be on the next agenda,” Allison said.
Harbaugh asked if the information could be discussed at the next council meeting in two weeks. Allison said council members could vote on it at that time.
Mike Watkins also had several questions for the mayor and council. He began with his concerns of a conflict of interest between Allison and Councilmember Vicki Berryman.
“I’m going to answer that,” Allison said. “I’ve gotten a little tired of it. There is absolutely no conflict whatsoever. Vicki and I both lost our spouses. We were very fortunate to find each other and find love. Therefore, we do live together and there is no ethical or legal – I can be with a councilman. It makes no difference.
“What it is, I can talk to her and I can talk with one other councilman on any subject and that’s it. I can’t talk to the whole council. I cannot do that. But it’s not unethical and it’s not illegal that we have found each other and she happens to have been on the council and I’m the mayor.”
Harbaugh again expressed his concern of a conflict of interest because Berryman is likely to vote how the mayor votes.
“To start with, I don’t vote,” Allison said. “I can break a tie but I don’t vote. She doesn’t have to vote with me but she probably will. That’s as far as we’re going with that.”
Harbaugh also had questions about Councilman Wayne Henneke. An information request revealed Henneke had a salary of some $17,000 from the city last year.
“I’ve gone through the Kansas Ethics Commission and found Kansas ethics cases,” said Bob Suelter, city attorney. “A person who works for the city is not disqualified for being elected and sitting on a governing body for the city.”
Flick, away from the microphone, asked about a potential violation of the city’s employee handbook.
“The city of Great Bend Employee Handbook does say they shouldn’t be working for the city as a city councilman,” Suelter said. “It doesn’t disqualify him from being a city councilman, it disqualifies him from being an employee, and Mr. Henneke is no longer an employee.”
Flick and Harbaugh asked about previous years when Henneke was on the council and collecting a salary from the city.
“He has a certificate of election from the county clerk,” said Suelter. “That’s what he needs to have to sit on the city council.”
Flick drew a round of applause by saying if the chief of police is held to the rules of the handbook, all city employees should be held to the rules.