In their own own words —
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When Terry Holderness was confirmed in February as the permanent leader of the Ashland Police Department &
and interim police chief Ron Goodpaster headed back into retirement &
there wasn't even a hint of the internal storm that had rocked the department under the leadership of former Police Chief Mike Bianca (2003-06) and spilled into the streets of Ashland. Goodpaster, who arrived on the scene in May 2006, was brought in to restore order following a huge battle within the APD that resulted in the Police Officer's Association issuing a public "vote of no confidence" in Bianca (July 2005) which led to the former chief offering his resignation in April 2006.
The tumult that tore apart the APD rippled through the communities of Ashland, creating deep divisions that still exist. Unaware of the complexity of the issues, hundreds in the community rushed to defend and support a beloved Bianca as he left the force &
currently consisting of 27 sworn officers.
But the story reveals a sharp contrast between the public and political feud over the way police interact with the community, and the reality of internal divisions within the police department that had little to do with the issues tossed about in public.
At that time, Bianca himself contributed to the disconnect, making public statements about the nature of the problems within the police department. At one rally during a time when the chief took a leave of absence, Bianca told people "the soul of the police department" hung in the balance.
Even now as order in the police department has been restored, the political issues that divided the community remain.
On April 3, 2006, a few days after former city administrator Gino Grimaldi announced he was leaving, Mayor John Morrison called an unscheduled meeting with his embattled police chief. Grimaldi was in the room when Bianca got the news that his services would no longer be needed.
"I did ask for his resignation, which is certainly within my purview," Morrison said.
After 19 years on the force and closing in on retirement, Bianca did not expect to be fired, but accepted it as a relief from the burdens of struggling with managing a department that had early on publicly dismissed his leadership. He said he held no hard feelings as he recalled what took place.
"," Bianca said.
"It was over a year just a public battle going on. And he said, 'Things don't seem to be getting any better.' And I said, 'I have to agree with you.' And he said, 'I think it is probably best if we change leadership.' And I said, 'Thank you, sir.' And it was a great relief."
Bianca held a clause in his contract that provided the city an option to transfer him to another management role within a different department if the job as police chief didn't work out. The city chose to let him go.
"I didn't think he was a good fit for the city," Morrison said. "I felt that we simply didn't have faith in his leadership and that came back to that fit. I'm not saying anything negative or positive about Mike Bianca. It didn't seem to be that the fit was right. I really looked at it hard, I gave it 15 months when I came in, and at that point I felt that we really needed someone else."
Bianca, who held a position as one of two lieutenants with APD, was initially recommended by former Mayor Alan DeBoer and hired prior to DeBoer's departure from office.
"It was my decision and my recommendation," DeBoer said. "And I still believe that Mike was the best person for the job. In hindsight I wish I would have been more actively involved. I never really went to the police department and sat down and talked to people. And I regret that. And Mike stepped into a problem. There was a problem before he got there."
Although DeBoer did not talk with the rank and file, Grimaldi did. And he was aware of the . Bianca lauded Grimaldi as one of the kindest men he's ever known, but lamented the lack of real support he felt he needed from the former city administrator.
There were problems within the APD, but they were not always perceived correctly by the public. The two chiefs prior to Bianca did not endure the animosity that rose up to force him out.
"I would say the rank and file adored Gary Brown," former Mayor Cathy Shaw said. "They adored Scott Fleuter and really had enormous respect for them. I never heard any grumbling from anybody within the department with either of those police chiefs, either Fleuter or Brown at any time."
So, why Bianca?
Bianca understood the difficulties he would face as leader of the APD even before he tossed his hat into the ring. He was aware of the backlash it would cause without the support of his managers. But for Bianca, it was an opportunity to provide leadership where he believed it was lacking.
ABOUT THIS SERIES —
The resignation of Planning Director David Stalheim has increased the number of vacated city leadership positions to three. Coupled with on outpouring of criticism from residents over the council’s decision to undergo five months of professional training and counseling, public concern over the state of the city is high.
The Tidings conducted a two-week investigation into the workings of the council and its relationship to City Hall, presented here in four parts.
: Ashland’s dysfunctional council: A series of interviews with former and current city leaders suggests the council is failing to operate effectively as a group. City staff is overwhelmed with the agendas of some individual members of the council. Stress is high and decison-making is low.
: The resignation of David Stalheim is the tip of the iceberg for a planning department drifting far behind its revenue goals and swimming amid accusations of distrust and influence.
TODAY: As the Ashland Police Department’s problem broke into public view in a well-publicized clash between officers, their chief and the city, turnover was rampant and morale was down. But a healing change came quickly with a new leader.
: Several departments in the city face staffing and economic problems, including a frustrated fire department that has taken its appeal directly to voters and a two-person legal staff lacking a permanent leader.
Despite it all, the future does look promising as a new group of city leaders seeks to bring about lasting change.
In an effort to provide the leadership opportunity Bianca felt his managers lacked, he restructured the chain of command, removing long-time respected patrol leader, Lt.. Rich Walsh, from direct command over patrol and placing him over investigations. He then established the new position of "." In this rotating leadership position, each of the five sergeants would take turns being the leader for one year and then step down to allow someone else a turn.
It was an early management blunder for Bianca that fanned the flames of fury that already existed.
"," Bianca said. "It had its upside and its downside. One of the obvious downsides is that people might want to get that job and keep it. And when you take something away, that's viewed as a negative."
Bianca admits there wasn't a consensus among his managers for the Master Sergeant program. But he believed the core problem he faced was much deeper.
"," Bianca said. "I was having the internal battle before I became chief. Managers were actively working against me.
"I had managers who had declared internally that if I became chief they would quit. I only had 20 percent support when I became chief."
Unbeknownst to the public, Bianca's internal battle with the majority of the force would become the catalyst for a community-wide discord centering around the issue of community policing.
While the public viewed the problems Bianca was having with his officers as , the management decisions he made internally and the tactical errors he made in two on-scene volatile incidents cost him the confidence of his patrol officers that he desperately needed. Bianca says he did not communicate properly with officers when he took over two standoffs without warning.
That lack of communication was put on display twice: the "" incidents. In both instances, Bianca arrived after officers had secured the areas and engaged the perpetrators. At B Street, Bianca disarmed and strode into the home where an armed gunman was holed up. He walked in with a relative of the gunman.
"It probably looked horribly dangerous for me and totally out of policy," Bianca said. "Did I communicate well what I was doing? No. I'll own that."
He made a similar assessment and approach with a knife-wielding mental patient a few months later, which resulted in a dangerous dance while officers with drawn weapons had to decide whether or not to use lethal force.
Since 2004, the APD has lost 20 officers including several high-level employees with three masters degrees among them and more than 57 years of experience. Seventeen of those officers left during the tenure of Bianca. Although some departures have been attributed to decisions to retire and bad hires, some highly-trained valued personnel simply left to go back to the same areas from which they came due to the instability within the department.
When asked why he believed his managers sought to undermine him, Bianca said, "Because they hated my ass! I don't know why."
When Goodpaster replaced Bianca, he began the process of restructuring the department back the way it was prior to Bianca's changes. Walsh was put back in charge of patrols.
"I never had any visions of becoming the top dog or the chief or anything of that nature," Walsh said. "I could've retired here as a patrol officer or sergeant and would've been happy."
Goodpaster removed the master sergeant program, claiming that it was not a good setup for the organization, having sergeants supervise other sergeants on a part-time basis. He placed them all on equal footing again with Walsh in charge.
"It's a much better reporting scenario," Goodpaster said. "It creates better communication and accountability, and it's a more professional structure."
It appeared that Walsh was the right fit for leading patrols and removal of the master sergeant post removed the tension it created between managers. Bianca's easy-going style appealed to elements within the community, but his management style created disunity with the police department. The perceived disloyalty to Bianca was construed by some residents as cops with hardcore attitudes that didn't match the liberal environment of Ashland.
Goodpaster disagreed with the sentiment that the department is militaristic or heavy-handed.
"This is a good organization," Goodpaster said. "And I think the department has had a bum rap, quite frankly. There are some extremely talented professional people here."
Councilor David Chapman agrees.
"I like the police department," Chapman said. "I was particularly happy with Chief Ron [Goodpaster]. I just love that guy. If his situation with retirement hadn't been in place I would have loved to keep him on. And I really like Terry (Holderness), I think he's doing a great job, but it's been a short period."
Policing styles aside, the management problems in the department seemed to have boiled down to the relationship between two of its leaders, Bianca and Walsh.
Bianca had made a number of tactical errors while managing the department.
Aside from placing his managers on a rotation that created discontent and removing the most respected patrol leader from supervising patrols, Bianca took over Walsh's office while he was on vacation &
a move that would strain what Bianca called a "brotherly" relationship.
"He was on the department when I started," Bianca said. "He trained me."
With both Bianca and Walsh as equals &
Walsh on the patrol side and Bianca on the administrative side &
, which Bianca calls a "loving rivalry," became the central point of the feud in the department.
"You know it always comes down to, I think, improper management," DeBoer said. "And I think more communication would have helped and I think Mike was a little bit weak as a leader."
View of the council
While virtually everyone interviewed for this story believes the turmoil that rocked the Ashland Police Department to its core just over a year ago has subsided, the main source of public controversy still lingers. Namely, some in the community want a more visible and active police force, while others want to see community policing practices employed.
A report requested by the city council &
now known simply as the PERF report &
noted these competing views both in the community and among city leadership. The report suggested a &
what some refer to as "hug and release" &
feeds the confusion.
At the time of Bianca's dismissal, some of the council staunchly defended him as a champion of community policing. Public backlash against the mayor was strident, spilling out into two rallies of support for Bianca. Rank-and-file police officers were harshly criticized. .
"A lot went on in the past that the public was unaware of," Walsh said. "I can't dwell in the past. I must help the organization move forward within the community."
Ironically, the PERF report's assessment of the department said community policing strategies were not being readily employed in the department, particularly in its structure and its evaluation techniques.
Interviewed last week, Councilor Cate Hartzell said she believes there is a disconnect between the mentality of the police department and that of the community at large.
Councilor Eric Navickas agrees.
"I think there's been a lot of criticism over the years because of the fact that we live in a pretty small community without a lot of violent crime," Navickas said. "We have some petty crime in our community. There's a perception that the police often tend to harass the young kids downtown and I think there's a certain reality to it. And even if it's not a reality, there's a perception among the youth that the police are harassing them and I think that leads to animosity between the two groups."
Recent decisions by Police Chief Terry Holderness to locate a substation downtown and to buy Tasers for every officer &
both of which Bianca opposed &
have drawn criticism from Navickas and others on the council.
According to Councilor Navickas, on Sept. 26, both he and Hartzell met with Police Chief Terry Holderness to express their concerns over the department's Taser request and to discuss other issues.
"This meeting was at his office and we discussed the Taser issue," Navickas said. "More so we met with him to hear what his recommendations are and understand exactly the specifics of that. So it was more a meeting to hear what his positions were so we could have a better understanding of that."
Navickas followed the meeting with Holderness with yet another meeting to express his concerns over the downtown substation. He said he believes that the expression of concern by councilors to staff is healthy.
"I think it's in the interest of both parties and I think it's a healthy situation when a councilor can go to staff and state their position, and allow staff to state their position &
have a basic conversation with a very conscious reality that you're simply a single councilor."
Navickas is not alone in his direct contact with the police department.
According to Human Resources Director Tina Gray, she received a request from a single councilor &
whom she would not name &
to review Bianca's file, which was eventually denied by the city attorney. A public information request by the Tidings revealed that Hartzell asked City Administrator Martha Bennett to interview retiring APD detective Brent Jensen, though it is uncertain if her request was granted, or why Hartzell made the request.
"Can we do exit interviews, or can you?" Hartzell e-mailed Bennett on July 11, 2006. "When I heard that Brent Jensen retired, he's another one I thought it might be interesting to have you talk to."
Gray did say Hartzell had made several requests from her in the past.
"You know, really since Martha [Bennett] came on board, there's definitely been a shift," Gray said. "It used to be more frequent, and she has now got the council working through her. And since that time I've had none."
Likewise, since the departure of Bianca, stability at the police department has returned, even if the political concern remains.
is the Content Editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. He can be reached at 482-3456 x223 or
State of the City, Part 3
In their own own words —