Council votes 4-3 for reinstatement of Cliff Couch, effective immediately
By Mike Courson
It took about six weeks but a handful of vocal Great Bend citizens got what they wanted. At Tuesday’s meeting, the Great Bend City Council voted 4-3 to reinstate Chief of Police Cliff Couch from his original July 24 suspension.
“The first step is to assess the situation,” Couch said of his reinstatement. “I’ve been gone for nearly a month and a half. This thing didn’t happen in a vacuum. There’s been a whole lot going on while I haven’t been there. I have to see what things look like and get a plan in place for us to get back on track.”
Couch said the community support since his suspension has been an uplifting experience. “That part has been awesome,” he said. “As bad an experience as the whole thing has been, that’s just made all the difference in the world.”
Recent attempts to reverse the July 24 decision had failed with a tie vote and Mayor Mike Allison casting the deciding vote to support the suspension. The numbers swayed with the recent resignation of Councilman Wayne Henneke, who supported the suspension. His resignation and the retirement of City Administrator Howard Partington opened the door for Tuesday’s reversal.
Councilman Dana Dawson, who has vocally opposed to the suspension from the start, made the motion Tuesday.
“I now am going to make a motion to rescind and expunge from the record the notice dated July 24, 2017 suspending Chief Couch with potential for termination, and the resulting suspension of Chief Couch immediately,” he said.
After Dawson amended the motion to state Partington had retired, not resigned, Allison asked if the council was aware of the full ramifications of the new vote.
“If you lift the suspension, then he will not have the hearing he asked for,” Allison told the council. “You realize that?”
“I’m not for the suspension because I do want the hearing,” said Councilwoman Allene Owen, who originally voted for the suspension. “I want it to be known what the problems are and we can discuss those in the hearing. If we do not, the original allegations that were made will not be addressed and they need to be addressed.”
“This was not between administrator and chief, exactly,” Allison said. “This was a person who decided he did not have to do what his boss asked him to do.”
Dawson retorted that per the rules at the time regarding Couch’s inability to discuss the situation without Partington’s blessing, there was little he could do. “What else is the man supposed to do?” Dawson asked Allison.
Dawson, Mike Boys, Cory Zimmerman, and Brock McPherson voted to approve the new motion. Owen, Vicki Berryman, and Joel Jackson voted against. When Allison announced that Couch was officially reinstated with the 4-3 vote, a large portion of the crowd stood and applauded.
After the vote, the council discussed moving forward on an audit of city dealings. “I earlier wanted to request a forensic audit, but after discussing with the auditors, that could get into excess of $100,000,” Dawson said.
“They suggested what they a ‘procedures audit,’ which is more targeted, which will cost considerably less money where we set up targets to go for, and we can expand it as and if needed.
“I want to make clear, this is not to attack anybody but I have three reasons for wanting this,” continued Dawson. “The first is we need to have a clean slate for our new administrator. We are going to have almost a completely new council in November. They need to have a clean slate as well. Also, we need to show that we went to some effect to make the public happy to show them we’re operating a clean operation.
“Personally, I hope it comes back clean. I really do. But it has to be done to make it clean for everybody.”
The target of the audit will include research of the last 10 years of the city administrator’s office, 10 years of any city loans, five years of the Great Bend Police Departments and street departments, and will also include new surveys sent out to city departments.
“We send out surveys to the departments and several other people,” Dawson said. “The auditor from Adams, Berans suggested we resend them again in fear that they might have felt they couldn’t speak as freely as they can now.”
Mayor Allison asked City Clerk Shawna Shafer an approximate cost of the audit. Shafer said if three auditors are used, fees could run approximately $6,000 a day, not including any work done at the auditors’ offices before and after the field work.
“Okay, you’re the taxpayers,” Allison said after the crowd cheered.
The motion to move forward with the audit passed 7-0.
Allison set forth committees for several interviews in the coming week. Several applicants will be interviewed to fill the Ward 2 vacancy left by Henneke’s resignation. Council and city staff will also be conducting interviews for a new city administrator and fire chief. Three applicants, all from local fire stations, have applied for that position.