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Ex-chiefs severance deal not legally required, documents reveal

Mark Makler, the attorney representing the Hillsboro Police Officers Association (HPOA), believes an approaching civil suit may have influenced former Police Chief Carey Sullivan’s decision to resign.

The city of Hillsboro announced on March 4 that Sullivan would be voluntarily stepping aside. His resignation was effective as of March 9.

A lawsuit the organization filed against the city of Hillsboro challenges the authority of the Hillsboro Police Department to demand the personal cell phone of Officer Dave Morse. In the wake of an Internal Affairs investigation into an on-duty automobile accident, HPD officials sought to have Morse hand over his private cell phone.

The dispute has also generated two unfair labor practice complaints against the city by HPOA with the state Employment Relations Board.

A court hearing on the issue is currently scheduled to start in late April, and Sullivan was expected to be a key witness for the city. Now that he has resigned, however, his status and credibility is unclear.

“His leaving could have an impact on the trial,” said Makler.

At the very least, Makler believes Sullivan’s departure, along with the return of former Hillsboro Police Chief Ron Louie, presents an opportunity for the HPOA and the city to settle its differences.

“We didn’t have these difficulties before Sullivan became chief,” Makler pointed out. “We didn’t always agree on everything, but there wasn’t any animosity between us. It takes two to tango, but now there’s interest in seeing whether we can.”

January’s disturbing confrontation with former Hillsboro police officer Tim Cannon may also have been a factor in Sullivan’s departure, according to a source familiar with the workings of the Hillsboro Police Department who did not want to be identified.

According to this theory, Cannon’s defense attorney may seek to make working conditions within the bureau an issue in the trial — arguing that they were stressful enough to make Cannon snap.

The source added that an argument regarding working conditions could be bolstered if the city loses the upcoming court case in response to the HPD’s demand for Morse’s cell phone.

City manager’s discretion

In another twist to the Sullivan resignation, the original employment agreement negotiated by Sullivan and then-City Manager Sarah Jo Chaplen included a severance package for the chief only if he did not voluntarily resign.

The contract specified that if the chief voluntarily resigned from his position, “the chief shall not be entitled to any severance amount.” However, if the chief was involuntarily terminated, the city agreed to pay “a severance amount equivalent to the monetary value of six months of base salary” as well as covering health insurance premiums for six months. The agreement was signed by Chaplen and Sullivan on June 30, 2010.

Current Hillsboro City Manager Michael Brown said there was no legal obligation to pay Sullivan a severance because he voluntarily decided to resign. However, Brown used his discretion as city manager to fashion an agreement he believed was ultimately in the best interests of the city of Hillsboro: to provide Sullivan with six months of salary at his existing rate of pay, as well as extending Sullivan’s health insurance coverage for six months.

“This was negotiated as part of his decision to resign,” Brown explained. “I had confidential conversations with him and he ultimately made the decision to resign. We negotiated an agreement in the spirit of the former (hiring) agreement. It’s essentially the same as that one. It’s an employment agreement he and I negotiated.”

In a one-page document titled “Chief Carey Sullivan Severance Entitlements,” Brown and Sullivan signed off on five key points: first, “Chief Sullivan elects to resign effective March 9, 2013.”

The second item specifies that the police chief and the city “agree in principle to non-disparagement terms extending to city executives and elected officials.”

The third item requires Chief Sullivan to keep confidential the announcements and notices of his resignation until March 4, giving time to the city of Hillsboro to make the announcement about Sullivan’s departure in a manner the city manager chose.

Item No. 4 simply recaps Sullivan’s monthly salary ($11,266.16) and his accrued hours of vacation (145.33 hours).

The fifth item outlines the severance payments Sullivan will receive following his resignation. The document specifies that Sullivan will take 40 hours of accrued vacation through March 8, and that his remaining accrued leave will be paid out at his current salary; that he will receive six months of salary at $11,266.16 per month; and that the city will directly pay premiums for continued health insurance coverage for Sullivan and his enrolled dependents for six months.

The salary and the extended insurance coverage will be in effect through September 2013.

‘No scandal here’

Brown said he believes the agreement he reached with Sullivan is fair to both parties.

“There is no scandal here; no internal investigation with the chief,” Brown explained. “It (his resignation) is a decision he made, and I support it and we’re moving on.”

Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey said he and members of the Hillsboro City Council support the agreement Brown worked out with Sullivan.

“We are a city manager form of government, which means that Michael Brown, our city manager, is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city and all personnel decisions,” Willey explained. “We hired Michael because of his management skills and experience. The agreement [with] Chief Sullivan was in keeping with the spirit of his contract, and in the best interest of the city. The council and I support Michael’s decision.”

Brown pointed out that the city is now ramping up for the lengthy process of choosing a new police chief, and he cautioned that it could take several months.

“I suspect it will be two months of work just to develop perspectives on what it is we need in a chief. We’re setting up to receive a new chief, but we’re not yet in the recruitment phase,” Brown said. “Not anywhere near it.”

Louie was hired in early March to serve as interim chief during the transition to a permanent replacement for Sullivan.

“Part of Ron’s work is to look for traits, qualities and leadership style,” Brown explained, adding that he wants the department’s police officers to have substantial input and involvement in the process of choosing a new chief.

“I care a great deal about their feedback,” explained Brown.

Brown said he intends to spend a lot of time personally involved in the hiring process, and talking with individual candidates.

“We’re coming up with focus areas for what we need in a new chief,” he said.

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