Falls fires its chief of police

NEWTON FALLS – Police Chief John Kuivila was terminated from his position by village council during an emergency meeting Tuesday. This comes after an investigation by City Manager Jack Haney into claims of sexual harassment by Kuivila toward a female police employee.

Council members met at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday and immediately entered executive session for the purpose of personnel in reference to employment or dismissal of the chief of police. After about an hour of closed-door discussion they returned to add an ordinance to the agenda to fire Kuivila. They held two readings of the ordinance back to back, both of which were unanimously approved.

The ordinance calls on Section 11 Part A of Kuivila’s contract that allows the termination of his employment by a majority of council votes at a duly authorized public meeting.

“The majority of City Council of Newton Falls believes that the Police Chief has undermined his ability to remain an effective leader,” Haney said in a press release, “Further, the City Council believes this action is for the good of all concerned, including the community, Police Department and the parties involved.”

According to the ordinance, the decision was made as an emergency measure to preserve public peace, health, welfare and the safety of the community. In December, an investigation was made into allegations of sexual harassment by Kuivila after two female employees at the police department turned in handwritten statements to Haney.

In the first note, dated Jan. 11, a woman said she was feeling uncomfortable in her position at the department after Kuivila made comments about her body after she returned from maternity leave. The woman wrote that she requested that Kuivila stop and that she later received an angry phone call from Kuivila’s wife regarding a letter about his feelings toward her.

A second note was turned in to Haney by another female employee stating that Kuivila threatened her if she made any comments on the alleged sexual harassment.

The investigation resulted in several executive sessions by the council to discuss proper procedure concerning Kuivila’s employment and possible dismissal.

Kuivila’s attorney, Kimberly Kendall, said the council does not have the option to unilaterally terminate Kuivila based on contract laws. This means they cannot fire him without agreeing to the severance package in his contract. Haney’s press release said the village had yet to finalize the details of the severance procedure with Kuivila and Kendall.

“The reason we have a contract,” Kendall said, “is to prevent a good ol’ boy termination via a popularity contest.”

Kuivila was hired Sept. 21, 2009, under a contract to expire on Sept. 20, 2014. According to his contract, because the council chose to pursue Section 11, Part A of termination, he is entitled to six months of severance pay, close to $30,000, as well as other benefits.

Kendall said she is unsure whether the council is actually pursuing Section 11, Part A, or if they are pursuing Part D. On Tuesday, council members referred to Section A, which allows for termination based solely on a council vote. However, at a regular meeting on Feb. 4, the council had drawn upon Section 11, Part D of the contract, which allows for the dismissal of the chief based on disciplinary reasons and has a provision for a pre-disciplinary hearing.

According to a letter sent to Kendall from Law Director Joseph Fritz on Feb. 5, the council had decided to invoke Part D and wanted to move forward with a pre-disciplinary hearing to be administered by a mutually agreed upon third party.

Fritz requested a list of third party arbitrators from Kendall in the emailed letter. An hour after receiving the request, Kendall said she asked for a formal copy of charges against Kuivila saying that the handwritten notes by the female police employees did not allege a policy violation. She also requested expense parameters concerning the arbitrator since their services would be paid by the village.

As of Tuesday night, Kendall said she had not received a formal complaint.

“I’m sure if they had some charges against him,” Kendall said, “they would have filed them, but instead they had to switch routes.”

Kendall said it is difficult to work with the council members when they are not forthcoming with needed and requested information. She said she did not learn about the council’s decision to terminate Kuivila from council but rather learned about it from the media.

Haney declined to comment on the pre-disciplinary hearing and Fritz did not return messages Tuesday evening.

In addition, the council added a resolution to appoint Sgt. Rick Lisum as the acting police chief since he is the most senior police officer. According to Village Clerk Kathy King, Lisum has been working for the department for around 30 years.

However, Lisum is currently in Minnesota with the Air Force Reserve. According to K-9 Officer Luke Fetterolf, Lisum will return in three to four days.

Haney said he was aware that Lisum was out of state, but that he did not want to “get ahead of the story” by asking Lisum’s permission to accept the position when it was not guaranteed that the council would take action on the matter. Haney said there are two other sergeants at the department and there is a protocol in place for an officer to be in charge of each shift.