Bring MacK Back! Supporters again urge Council to reinstate Chief MacKinnon

May 18, 2012
Santa Paula News

Carrying posters that on one side listed 50 accomplishments of Police Chief Steve MacKinnon and proclaiming "Bring MacK Back!" on the other side, supporters of the embattled chief attended a special session Wednesday evening where some offered public comment.

At least those that could find the meeting addressed the council or stood in or outside the cramped Administrative Board Room where the session was held. The Santa Paula High School District Board of Trustees was utilizing the Council Chambers for their regularly scheduled meeting and such special council meetings are held in the smaller room.

Other than public comment, the only other item on the agenda was a closed session titled Conference with Legal Counsel - Anticipated Litigation, regarding "Consideration of settlement offer from Police Chief Steve MacKinnon," placed on paid administrative leave April 17.

The more than an hour long special closed session included the city's contract attorney, Mark Meyerhoff of Century City-based Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, which oversaw the investigation into MacKinnon; Mayor Bob Gonzales; Vice Mayor Ralph Fernandez; Councilmen Rick Cook, Fred Robinson and Jim Tovias; City Manager Jaime Fontes and Assistant City Attorney John Cotti, who later said no reportable actions were taken.

Cotti noted a report on the closed session could be released at the next regularly scheduled council meeting, set for Monday. Before City Hall emptied, Human Resource Director Lorena Alvarez said the May 21 meeting was canceled because of a lack of business items.

Gonzales said speakers would have three minutes for comment.

Bob Borrego urged the council to reinstate MacKinnon, noting his "accomplishments are impressive" and his work on behalf of the Santa Paula Police Department and the community "far outweighs the charges against him." Borrego said such discord could lead to issues regarding council members being "resurrected."

Although the council has many responsibilities, Borrego said it has the "flexibility to do what needs to be done.... I firmly believe" if the resolution is unfavorable to MacKinnon and, in turn, to the community, there will be "no peace in Santa Paula until this council is out of office."

Connie Tushla asked if she could read a statement from Citizens Supporting Police Chief MacKinnon Co-Chair Gary Nasalroad, who was unable to attend the meeting, but Gonzales said she only had three minutes of comment. Tushla said there have been a few comments that "the public will eventually forget all about this chief of police issue. It is my feeling that people will not forget. They will always remember for a number of reasons," including MacKinnon's leadership of the annual Moonlight at the Ranch fundraiser.

"Steve did a tremendous amount of work to make this fundraiser," benefiting public safety, "a success. The committee now must do all of that work. They won't forget."

Tushla said the Singular Santa Paula online/cable television show highlighting the city "will struggle to stay on air with Steve not being the director.... The Singular Team won't forget."

The Boys & Girls Club of Santa Clara Valley chaired by MacKinnon has not only benefited from him securing actor Martin Sheen as a supporter and featured speaker, but "In addition he (MacKinnon) has been available to help numerous kids at risk and those not at risk. They won't forget."

Tushla said the Santa Paula Theater Center, Santa Paula Police & Fire Foundation and the county's first no-kill animal shelter, SPARC would also not forget MacKinnon's help and guidance. Most importantly, SPPD officers "who worked in partnership with Steve and his many friends in Santa Paula won't forget. Will we ever be able to find a new chief of police with the same abilities to do so much for both the police department and the community?"

If MacKinnon is lost to the city, Tushla said his replacement would be scrutinized by the above members of the community who won't forget the previous chief... so let's just keep the one we have now!"

Former Mayor Mary Ann Krause said she has received a number of communications from residents "hoping to be here, but the timing" of the special meeting - the agenda was posted after it could be published in the local newspaper - did not allow their attendance. But, "The message they wanted me to pass along is the chief is a man who means a great deal to this community, which is familiar with his accomplishments... they feel badly he is being treated this way," and that the issue was "not handled in the appropriate manner and that he deserves much better treatment."

Krause noted MacKinnon's "love, commitment and dedication" to the SPPD and community warranted much more than public humiliation. If he is not returned to his post he should receive a severance package from the city.

Anita Pulido, also a co-chair of the citizens' support group, noted "MacKinnon has made more and will make more for this community" through his better policing and positive community high profile. "Keep our chief... we want MacK back. Many people who are working very hard in the community want this."

Pulido also questioned how the issue was handled. "This could have been handled administratively easily enough, not go this crazy point that it went. I ask you to reinstate Police Chief MacKinnon."

Gonzales offered to let Pulido read Nasalroad's statement. It read: "The citizens' committee supporting our chief remain firmly committed in asking for his reinstatement. We are united in our belief that the allegations that resulted in Chief MacKinnon being placed on Administrative Leave were issues that could have easily been addressed internally. This could have prevented this long painful public ordeal, which has caused harm to our city and unwarranted humiliation to a man who has served our city and citizens in a faithful and honorable manner. I urge the city to do the right thing. You must surely realize by now, that this need not have happened." Nasalroad noted he would like MacKinnon returned to his position, as "He is in my opinion the 'best man' for the job."

Later, following the closed session, former Acting Police Chief Mark Hanson, who also served as MacKinnon's assistant chief until he retired, also offered public comment. He noted he addressed the council at the May 7 meeting: "You know how I feel, I spoke from the heart. MacKinnon is a good man and I hope you do the right thing and bring him back to work." Hanson said the issues surrounding MacKinnon are similar to those handled internally in the past that did not result in an outside investigation or personnel placed on paid leave.

While the council was in closed session people - about 15, all supporters, came and went - talked outside, some expressing a degree of frustration not only with MacKinnon's situation but the difficulty of locating the meeting.

Said Tisa Grant, "We were walking around and around, there was no signage" directing those who might want to attend the special session to the proper room. Marleen Canniff agreed, noting that she found herself at the school board meeting.

Janice Dickenson said several people wandered around, gave up and left. She said, "I wonder how many others" supporting the chief had the same experience.

John Cantrall has lived in Santa Paula for three decades and he said although he is not acquainted with MacKinnon, he is impressed with his improvements to the SPPD and public safety in the community. "The chief made the SPPD better than it's ever been... he brought the department way, way up. When he came here there was talk of contracting with the sheriff's department, but he improved everything."

Cantrall noted MacKinnon - and the SPPD - is among the lowest paid in the county. "The chief is innovative, absolutely... and so involved in the community. I've seen him but never shook hands with him. He's done wonders."

Tisa Grant, who owns Tisa's Salon and Spa on Main Street, said City Hall is not considering what is in the best interest of Santa Paula. "The punishment doesn't fit the situation," and the message being sent by City Hall to the community is "'We will not accept excellence.'"

Bill Grant noted that not only did MacKinnon improve public safety, but also "worked right along beside us planning our events, tried to find ways to save our service clubs and organizations money while at the same time offering suggestions on how to make things better."

MacKinnon joined the city in November 2005.

The city released a spreadsheet about a week after MacKinnon was placed on leave that showed $2,814 in personal gasoline charges to the city over a 20-month period, as well as notations related to time sheets and actual hours worked. MacKinnon did not receive the city's department head vehicle allowance of $350 a month. His employment letter showed he had a city vehicle for personal and city use, a series of retired Crown Victorias.

The council had claimed the dispute is one strictly between Fontes and MacKinnon and they would be breaking the law if they even had knowledge of the issue.

Fontes requested Thursday morning that any questions be emailed, and wrote back that holding another closed session to address the MacKinnon issue is "undetermined at this time," and that he "respectfully" would offer no comment on any facet of the issue, including the investigation or the closed session. He also wrote, "We intend to move this as promptly as possible," when asked about another closed session or a timeline for a decision on the matter or how any announcement would come about. He confirmed Monday's meeting would be cancelled due to a lack of business.

Fontes was also asked when the three-minute public speaking limit was imposed. Public comment is normally five minutes and traditionally only shortened when there are many speakers. Gonzales has limited comment on the MacKinnon issue to three minutes at the two meetings where the public addressed it. "It is," wrote Fontes, "within the mayor's discretion to set speakers times within certain limits."

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