My inbox has been flooded in support of my recent TSB opinion column that our city manager, Jason Gray, mishandled the process of firing Doug Kowalski and replacing him with a new chief of police, Joe Williams. But I believe in continuing to research and validate a strong belief, even if in some cases that makes me admit I’m not on the right track.
So, I decided to follow up on the thoughts I conveyed in my column and do just that – more research. More conversations with people close to the situation. And in this case, my initial beliefs have become even stronger.
A little history of the situation is probably important here. On Friday morning, Oct. 5, then Chief of Police Kowalksi was relieved of his position, reassigned as special assistant to the city manager, asked to turn in his gun, badge and uniform shirt on the spot and was instructed not to return to the police station to talk with the officers he’d led for more than a decade. Gray announced Kowalki’s reassignment, as well as the appointment of former assistant city manager Williams as the new chief of police, to members of the McKinney Police Department via video on YouTube. That announcement was available for public consumption.
Members of McKinney City Council, including Mayor Brian Loughmiller were unaware of Gray’s actions until they received an email following Gray’s termination of Kowalski. On the day it happened, many our city’s elected leaders received frantic texts and emails asking them about something they knew nothing about.
I still find it appalling that our city manager would have the audacity to take such actions without discussing it with our council members, who were caught off guard. Blindsided is the word I’ve heard some of them use. It appears obvious that no plans were made to construct consistent messaging that would empower members of council to deal with the press and public.
As I said in my previous column, I don’t have any idea if Kowalski deserved to be terminated. Gray stated that it was due to philosophical differences. That is often to be expected when new leadership steps in. But I’m outraged about the way in which the processes were handled.
Gray could have let Kowalski go with dignity, giving him an opportunity to speak to his officers and a chance to choose to resign or retire. He could have avoided this public debacle that has ensued and has given a black eye to our city. He should have discussed his plans with the council and the city’s communications department and plotted out a process for announcing the change. Instead of appointing his buddy as the new chief, he should have opened up the position for recruitment, appointing a member of the current police force as interim.
Outcries of cronyism were heard throughout the city. Sources close to the situation say that it has been Gray’s intention to hire Williams as Chief of Police since his arrival in McKinney, and, they say that Gray fired former Deputy City Manager Jim Parrish in 2011 to make room for Williams. Williams was Chief of Police for the City of Celina during Gray’s tenure as City Manager there.
What I found in the Code of Ethics of the International City / County Management Association (ICMA) and the Texas City Management Association (TCMA) Code of Ethics makes me questions Gray’s ethics and intentions.
The ICMA code states that members should “Be dedicated to the highest ideals of honor and integrity in all public and personal relationships in order that the member may merit the respect and confidence of the elected officials, of other officials and employees, and of the public.
I ask you, does Gray’s behavior merit the respect and confidence of our elected officials and the public? Do we have confidence in his ability to handle similar situations in the future?
The behavioral guidelines of the TCMA further clearly state:
Tenet 11. Handle all matters of personnel on the basis of merit, so that fairness and impartiality govern a member's decisions pertaining to appointments, pay adjustments, promotions, and discipline.
Guideline: Equal Opportunity. All decisions pertaining to appointments, pay adjustments, promotions, and discipline should prohibit discrimination because of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, political affiliation, disability, age, or marital status.
It should be the members’ personal and professional responsibility to actively recruit and hire a diverse staff throughout their organizations.
If it should be the professional responsibility of our city manager to “actively recruit” and hire a diverse staff, why did Gray simply appoint Williams to the position without going through a recruitment process to find the best candidate for the job?
I contacted multiple individuals who have a combine 70 plus years of city manager experience, all of whom asked not to be identified. All of the city managers I interviewed agreed that it is, in most cities, within the city manager’s power to hire and fire department heads. They also made it clear that they did not have enough information to comment on whether Gray’s firing of Kowalksi was appropriate. What they did agree on is that the process could have been handled in a more professional manner.
The sources commented that it would be “highly unusual” for a city manager to fire a senior executive without first apprising council.
"It may not be required, but it’s a courtesy to let them know. It’s wise (for a city manager) to maintain a cooperative role with council,” one of the city managers I talked with on Monday said. Another source said the cardinal rule in the business of being a city manager is “No surprises.”
My sources repeatedly mentioned that city managers should act in a manner that fosters trust between the city manager, council, staff and the public. All felt that Gray’s actions betrayed that trust.
With regard to Gray’s appointment of a new chief of police, my contacts said they felt it would be more prudent to go through the process of recruitment.
“It is always important to go through the process. You can’t separate the process from the product,” one said, saying that Gray now has an issue of building confidence in the product (Williams as Chief of Police) because he didn’t go through the process.
As it stands now, McKinney citizens may not have the trust and confidence in the appointment of Williams because he was not required to meet the qualifications for applying for the job. He came from managing a department of approximately 9 officers in Celina to now being responsible for a department of 200. I wonder what Mr. Gray was thinking given this decision. I wonder if I can trust his decision making processes in the future.
So, citizens of McKinney, what do you think? Did Gray violate the public’s trust?