Scappoose city councilors back up Rains in police department conflict
As a conflict between rank-and-file police officers and the Scappoose city government expands, city councilors and department heads are making their position clear.
Scappoose city councilors and department heads affirmed their support for interim city manager Alexandra Rains in the past week, following a vote of no confidence from the Scappoose Police Department union.
The Scappoose Police Officers Guild issued a vote of no confidence in Chief Norm Miller earlier this month. The vote had its intended effect: Miller said he would step down as chief as soon as a successor was in place.
The union then issued a vote of no confidence in Rains, who has been serving as interim city manager since Michael J. Sykes resigned to take a job leading the Columbia River People's Utility District last summer.
Rains is allowing Miller to stay with the department and voluntarily demote to a police officer position, according to a letter from the union's attorney. Rains did not directly respond when asked to confirm the claim.
In an Aug. 22 letter to the Scappoose City Council and the city attorney, the union's attorney, Dan Thenell, said that the union's vote was made unanimously at an emergency meeting after several union members met with Rains and told her they disagreed with the decision to allow Miller to stay in the department.
Thenell wrote that the union "asked me to express to the city that a majority of current employees of the police department will leave the city's employment if the management issues at the department remain."
"To be blunt, if Chief Miller and Ms. Rains are not removed from the department, the city will see an exodus of most of the current employees," Thenell wrote.
Rains is a finalist to be tapped as permanent city manager, after serving in the role on an interim basis for the past year.
For city leaders, the union's latest move appears to be a bridge too far.
Two days after Thenell's letter, Mayor Scott Burge and Council President Megan Greisen wrote back to the Tigard-based attorney affirming their support for Rains and criticizing Thenell's actions.
Rains attempted to schedule one-on-one meetings with police department employees after the vote of no confidence in Miller, but Thenell and the union president, Christine Rouches, "attempted to block Ms. Rains from meeting with her own employees," Burge and Greisen wrote, adding: "When they did agree to meet with her … they insisted (on) meeting in a large group and recording the conversation.
"Let us be as clear as we can possibly be about this: Recording a conversation with a supervisor and then providing it to an attorney for that attorney to use to try to discredit the supervisor by cherry-picking comments falls far below our expectations of our city employees," Burge and Greisen continued.
In closing, Burge and Greisen wrote to Thenell that they have "an obligation to our community to create a positive team environment" and expect city employees to resolve issues professionally.
"We invite you and the guild to join us in these efforts and move away from the divisive tactics that have become commonplace under your leadership," they wrote, referring to the police union.
The Spotlight has also learned that three days earlier, eight city employees, most in supervisor positions, had sent a letter of support for Rains to the City Council, which will soon consider whether to name her as the permanent manager.
Public works director Dave Sukau and his assistant, Huell Whitehaus; water and wastewater treatment plant supervisors Kevin Turner and Darryl Sykes; finance and human resources administrator Jill Herr; city planner Laurie Oliver Joseph; city recorder Susan Reeves; and building official Don VanDomelen signed the letter.
Over the past year, "Alex's leadership has guided staff through both old and new challenges," the staff members wrote. "Her excellent rapport with staff, collaborative nature, and acute awareness of the key issues faced by staff makes Alex an ideal candidate for city manager, one who is uniquely positioned to continue effectively leading our team."
In a separate Aug. 24 letter to Thenell, Scappoose City Councilor Josh Poling took issue with the timeline of the union's publicized no confidence votes.
"I find it very interesting, the timing of your 'vote of no confidence' right before the interview process of hiring a city manager," Poling wrote.
When asked why the union issued the no-confidence vote in Miller earlier this month, Thenell referenced ongoing issues with staff leaving the department, but he did not address why the vote was taken this month and not sooner.
In his Aug. 22 letter, after saying most staff would leave if Rains and Miller remain, Thenell wrote that the guild "is looking forward to meeting with representatives of the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police and the yet-to-be-selected interim police chief on rebuilding the police department that the citizens and business of Scappoose deserve."
Poling cited that in his letter responding to Thenell.
"If that is truly the case," Poling wrote in his response, "I recommend that you work with Ms. Rains, not against her. She has followed through in each of her commitment in rebuilding the police department, yet it is clear that your intentions are to not allow her to succeed in doing so."
Reached for comment on this story, Rains demurred.
"Despite everything that has gone on, the city's position on discussing personnel issues remains the same," Rains told the Spotlight. "I respect our employees — past and present — and will not engage in a public discussion about confidential matters and confidential communications."
However, she added, "Clearly, I am disappointed at how some of the police employees chose to engage with me and the statements Mr. Thenell has made since."
Officers say that they hadn't seen any action taken against Miller following numerous complaints alleging poor leadership. City officials have declined to comment on the specifics of any investigations or disciplinary action taken.
Sykes, who served as city manager before Rains took on the role, outlined how he responded to complaints against Miller in a letter of his own to the council earlier this week, defending both his own process and his interim successor.
In March 2020, Jim Macfarlane, who served as Miller's second-in-command for just seven months, wrote a letter to Sykes outlining concerns he had with Miller's leadership.
"I was told there was going to be an investigation into the police department, but I was never contacted and no investigation ever took place. Instead, I was told that the course of action was changed from one involving an investigation into the police department from past to present, to a new course of action which appeared to entirely dismiss and/or ignore the then-current issues and instead looked to the future," Macfarlane wrote in an email to the union president earlier this week.
Macfarlane left the department just a few months later.
"I wanted to be part of the solution and had zero interest in leaving Scappoose PD, but the situation for me was unsustainable and hope of change and addressing the underlying issue had been removed," he wrote.
In his letter to the City Council, Sykes wrote that he worked with the city's insurer and attorney. Sykes said he divided the complaints into three categories: those that would require an employment investigation, those concerning how Miller managed his role as chief, and those that alleged mismanagement or unfair treatment.
"We did initial intake on matters that would necessitate an employment investigation and quickly discovered the allegations were without merit. For example, employees who were alleged recipients of inappropriate behaviors flatly denied those behaviors occurred," Sykes wrote.
Sykes then met with Miller and identified areas that "could use improvement."
"I worked with Chief Miller to make improvements, and we changed some of our internal processes," Sykes wrote. He then engaged an outside consultant to conduct an evaluation of Miller that involved 21 interviews with police department employees, other city employees, and community partners. Sykes wrote that the evaluation, which has not been made public, "came back relatively positive — Chief Miller was respected externally in our community and among most employees."
Though most of the complaints made about Miller came before Rains was named interim city manager, the union has alleged that Rains did not adequately address concerns that were still unresolved when she was promoted.
In his letter to the council, Sykes wrote that he was disappointed to see "that these decisions and events are being recast to fit a different and problematic narrative."
Sykes also wrote that a new city manager "cannot revisit and re-evaluate employment decisions I made a year before."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.