Public Safety

Marion's former chief pins wrongdoing on police union

Letter: Members used drugs, slept on job, didn't show up

Joe McHale
Joe McHale
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MARION — Joe McHale, who has left the Marion Police Department to take another job, told city officials in a letter this week that during his nearly three years as chief he had to contend with illegal drug use, neglect of duty and sleeping on the job among members of his department.

His assertions against members of the police union, the Marion Policemen’s Protective Association, come at a time of upheaval in the department’s leadership, a nasty rift between the brass and the rank-and-file and an unexplained harassment investigation.

The controversy came to a head recently when the Marion Policemen’s Protective Association informed city leaders its membership had passed a vote of “no confidence” in the force’s leadership.

In a letter circulated to city officials, union President Nick Martens said the organization, which “represents 29 of the 42 sworn police officers at the Marion Police Department, as well as all dispatchers and records clerks,” met May 15 “to address recent events surrounding the Marion Police Department and the investigation conducted by outside counsel.”

More than two-thirds of the union’s membership, Martens wrote, approved a vote of “no confidence” in McHale, who resigned to take a research job at a Florida institute; Deputy Chief Doug Slagle, who is retiring July 3; and administrative manager Shellene Gray, who remains at the department.

The union vote came even though McHale and Slagle already had announced they were leaving. It was approved after reports surfaced that City Manager Lon Pluckhahn had hired a lawyer to look into a “confidential personnel matter” in the police department.

Neither he nor the lawyer, Fran Haas with Nyemaster Goode, will disclose what the investigation entailed. Hass specializes in cases of “discrimination, harassment and retaliation based on race, sex, age, national origin, disability and veteran status,” according to the firm’s website.

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In a statement responding to the police union, Pluckhahn said that “the matter Ms. Haas investigated earlier in 2019 has concluded, and the confidential independent investigation remains a confidential personnel matter pursuant to the City’s policies and Iowa law.”

Furthermore, Pluckhahn expressed dismay at the union’s decision given that the results of Haas’ investigation were not shared with any of its members. He said the union acted “based on assumptions and incomplete information rather than communicating directly with the City about its concerns.”

McHale has said he inherited a police department lacking the basic best practices. He has spoken previously about how he was restructuring leadership and bringing modern policing tactics to the city.

But his letter to city officials — dated Tuesday, a day after his last day on the job — leveled more alarming allegations than he had ever made public before during his tenure here.

“Over the past two and a half years I dealt with significant procedural and policy violations by the members of the MPPA that included illegal drug use, sleeping on duty, untruthfulness, failure to report for duty, neglect of duty, failure to remain impartial, and many other matters that management has documented and attempted to rectify through appropriate disciplinary and training protocols,” he wrote to the City Council, mayor and the city manager.

In dealing with those issues, McHale said he worked to create “the Professional Standards Office” that standardized the investigative process of internal and external complaints of policy violations in order to “ensure fair treatment and due process.”

Additionally, McHale said he met with the union “every two to four weeks” the foster positive interactions.

“Not one time did the MPPA ever relate or document any concerns about my performance, or that of my subordinate staff,” McHale said. “The only issues ever raised by the MPPA were in regard to their own leave, overtime and compensation issues.”

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McHale also maintains the independent investigation of his department had nothing to do with his decision to leave — a position Pluckhahn felt compelled to defend.

“The City wishes to clear up some factual discrepancies surrounding former Police Chief Joe McHale’s departure,” he wrote. “Chief McHale’s interest in his new position with a nonprofit in Florida began in mid-March, 2019, predating the confidential independent investigation and media inquires into the recently concluded confidential independent investigation.”

Pluckhahn said McHale began interviewing for the new job in mid-March and accepted an offer in mid-April.

“As the Mayor Nicolas AbouAssaly stated in his April 23, 2019 press release, the City of Marion is ‘a stronger organization having had Joe McHale as our chief of police,’” Pluckhahn added. “The City wishes McHale and his family all the best.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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