Mayor: Former police chief a 'cancer' to West Linn
The authors of a report lambasting the city of West Linn for its handling of the Michael Fesser case sat down (virtually) with West Linn city councilors to discuss their review and recommendations at the council's most recent meeting on Dec. 21.
Councilors told Michael Gennaco and Rob Miller of the OIR Group that they hope to engage them further as the city moves forward in the wake of the racist policing scandal.
In April, the city hired OIR Group to conduct a review of its own approach to the Fesser case after fallout from a settlement rattled the city in February.
Fesser, a Black Portlander, sued his boss at A&B Towing, Eric Benson, for racial discrimination he faced at work. He also sued the city of West Linn for racial discrimination after West Linn police falsely arrested him as a favor to Benson, a friend of then-Chief Terry Timeus.
Part of the damning information revealed in February included racist, sexist and homophobic texts between Benson and Sgt. Tony Reeves, who led WLPD's investigation of Fesser.
The city fired Reeves in June after the Clackamas County District Attorney's office recommended revocation of his and Timeus' licenses from the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) and announced it would be reviewing over 500 cases where Reeves gave testimony, as they decided his character was utterly compromised. In addition to the DA's Brady investigation and the OIR Review, the United States Department of Justice is also investigating the case.
One key concern raised in the OIR report and mentioned by councilors, the OIR investigators and a public commenter at Monday's meeting was the role City County Insurance Services (CIS) played in the lawsuit and how the city might better work with the agency in future litigation.
During public comment, Fred Groves, a member of the city's Police Oversight and Accountability Task Force, asked about the CIS representative who refused to be interviewed for OIR's review.
He questioned whether the city threatened to sue CIS or pull its contract to compel the representative to cooperate.
Gennaco said they made every attempt to get the CIS adjuster to cooperate for the review as they believed he had useful information (CIS led the defense of the city in the lawsuit from Fesser). Gennaco said City Attorney Tim Ramis even called the representative's supervisor in an attempt to get him to talk.
According to Gennaco, the information from the CIS representative likely would have been even more useful than the testimony of Reeves, the only other key player who refused to cooperate with OIR during the review.
Gennaco explained that Reeves had already been fired by the time they reached out to him for an interview, so the city could not compel him to cooperate. However, Gennaco added that there likely wasn't much more information Reeves could have provided as they were well supplied with information about his role in the case from the lawsuits against A&B Towing and the city, WLPD's internal investigation and the Brady report from the Clackamas County District Attorney.
Monday's discussion also covered how the city could better work with CIS since the OIR report found the agency failed to keep councilors adequately informed on the details of Fesser's lawsuit against the city.
Gennaco explained that because of the way the city's risk management coverage with CIS works, the firm controls many key factors in litigation like the Fesser case; however, the city can and should demand a certain level of accountability from CIS, he added.
As the client, the city can tell CIS how it expects to be apprised of the case, Gennaco told the council.
"You heard from your lawyer one time in the year-and-a-half that the litigation was going on," Gennaco said of the Fesser suit. "That can't be a standard, but it was tolerated."
Mayor Russ Axelrod said that since the Fesser suit, the city has worked with CIS on one other case, of which the insurers have done a much better job of keeping council informed.
Another factor which led to the council being so ill-informed about the Fesser case, as the OIR report outlined, was the city's charter granting limited council input on personnel matters. The council, Miller and Gennaco discussed how this contributed to a culture in the police department where such racism and cronyism could persist.
Miller pointed out instances like the Tom Newberry case which could have led to a further examination of the problematic environment at the police department. Newberry, a WLPD officer, came under fire for posting inflammatory and racist comments on social media, which other officers "liked" or commented on.
According to Axelrod, much of that problematic environment was due to Timeus, whom he called a "cancer" to West Linn.
Axelrod said that the OIR investigators could get back to the council with any other questions they didn't have time to cover in the one-hour discussion.
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