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Meeting held last week between Chief MacKinnon, Ron Bamieh, Jaime Fontes

May 16, 2012
Santa Paula News

Santa Paula's embattled Chief of Police Steve MacKinnon met last week with his attorney behind closed doors with City Manager Jaime Fontes and city legal representation regarding MacKinnon's future status with the city.

Fontes placed MacKinnon on paid administrative leave April 17, a move that has disrupted the community and led to discussion by some supporters of the chief centered on recalling the City Council. Fontes launched an investigation into MacKinnon's use of a city car, gasoline credit card charges and time sheets in January.

Although the City Council has refused comment, noting the chief's forced leave was a personnel issue they were legally barred from having knowledge of, on April 23 a Public Information Request from the media revealed the apparent issues behind Fontes' action. Fontes did not return numerous phone calls seeking comment - or a statement that he is unable to comment - as of Monday's press deadline.

The city has retained Liebert Cassidy Whitmore to represent them in the matter. The Century City law firm also oversaw the investigation.

"We hope to come to a reasonable resolution to the dispute, and we would like to do so without causing any more damage than has already been done," said MacKinnon's attorney Ron Bamieh of Bamieh & Erickson of Ventura.

The City Council heard more than a dozen speakers at the May 7 meeting - the crowd of supporters overflowed the chamber and some had to stand outside - who questioned the move against MacKinnon, who joined the city in 2005. Speakers included those affiliated with Supporters of Police Chief Steve MacKinnon as well as general members of the public who noted the chief's successful turnaround and expansion of programs of the formerly troubled Santa Paula Police Department as well as his strong community involvement.

Several speakers also questioned the silence surrounding the issue that seemingly excluded council knowledge, and more than one stated they believe at least some members of the council do have insight into the situation.

Two speakers supported Fontes and the council. Larry Sagely questioned if the fact Fontes is the city's first Hispanic city manager sparked a backlash among MacKinnon supporters based on racism.

Latino Town Hall co-founder and former longtime president Bob Borrego told the council of MacKinnon's efforts to help Casa del Mexicano regain their liquor license and livelihood. The chief is "my hero," said Borrego, as well as a hero to the Casa.

MacKinnon's supporters used a poster to display a list of the chief's accomplishments, ranging from creation of 5-Year Strategic Plans and implementing annual SPPD goals and objectives to creation of the Explorer youth program and enlarging the Reserve Officer force and programs. Other accomplishments included evidence audit/management, adoption of community oriented policing, an Ethics in Policing Management Model and K-9 unit improvements. Technology and equipment upgrades as well as the use of social media were among the more than 45 accomplishments displayed on the poster and distributed to the crowd and council.

The chief's employment contract called for personal use of a city vehicle, and he did not receive the $350 a month car allowance accorded other department heads. More than one speaker alluded to the $2,800 gasoline credit card charges over a 20-month period related to trips to the chief's Arizona home as much less than the $7,000 he would have collected over the same time period if he had collected the car allowance.

MacKinnon's time sheets were also alluded to on the data sheet released to the public representing about 112 hours reported as work time for periods the city claims he was absent. Sagely noted that between the gasoline credit card charges and time sheet discrepancies as much as $10,000 could be involved. The crowd at the council scoffed at such statements, with several speakers noting MacKinnon was a known workaholic as well as devoting his free time to community causes and organizations.

Bamieh said when it comes to negotiations with the city, "It was my desire to pick a fight... the chief's desire was as amicably as possible to settle this. He loves the city of Santa Paula, gave his heart and soul to the job, not only to the police department but also to the community." In an earlier interview MacKinnon said he has been banned from speaking out publicly about the situation.

Bamieh noted the chief's accomplishments and record, wide respect he garnered from not only the SPPD but also the countywide law enforcement community, as well support he has from the citizens of Santa Paula.

MacKinnon, said Bamieh, "should be appreciated and not tarnished. We hope in the next few weeks this will be resolved in an amicable way that nobody has to be tarnished or hopefully reputations do not have to be tarnished. We extend an olive branch to the city and hope they choose that route." If not, "If they want a more aggressive option, we are prepared for that although we profoundly hope that is not the case."

The cost of the investigation overseen by an outside law firm representing the city has not yet been released. Bamieh said he has also "done some research on the issues... we did our own investigation including allegations and claims made against the chief," as well as investigations centered on city council members and others.

Bamieh said he would believe that "Everybody on the council has the city's best interest at heart as the chief does, and are not interested in any public allegations or dispute. There's no reason to tarnish the fine job he did over the last six years. Let reason guide them, not petty grievances." He added, "There is no reason to think" that the council would do otherwise. "The chief," said Bamieh, "as usual is putting Santa Paula first... and we expect that the decision-makers of the city will do the same."

There was no confirmation if the negotiation centered on the chief being returned to his job or if a severance package and clean break with the city was addressed.

Supporters of Chief MacKinnon Co-Chair Gary Nasalroad said he is glad to hear that negotiations have opened. "I hope a successful resolution can be reached," said Nasalroad. "We believe the chief should be reinstated to his position."

The citizens support group formed within a week of MacKinnon being placed on paid leave, just days after the Santa Paula Police Officers Association issued a statement of support for MacKinnon.

Nasalroad said the newspaper advertisements run by supporters leading up to the council meeting resulted in a flood of phone calls and emails from those voicing their opinion that MacKinnon has not been treated fairly, and questioning the public humiliation they said he has been subjected to by the city action.

That outpouring, said Nasalroad, has not abated: "There continues to be very, very strong interest in this matter; I continue to receive many calls and contacts from people who are hoping this works out for the chief. People all over are all saying 'go for it' and are 100 percent for the chief.... We think the chief should be reinstated to his position," and Nasalroad said he is "hoping cooler heads prevail, there will be a successful resolution and our chief is reinstated to where he belongs," leading the Santa Paula Police Department.

MacKinnon graduated from Northeastern University in Boston with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. He also has a master's degree in Public Administration and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy.

Before coming to Santa Paula, MacKinnon was police chief of three other agencies and also served on the United Nations International Policing Task Force to create police agencies in Haiti and Kosovo.