Emails obtained by the Herald Democrat reveal the city of Sherman had current Police Chief Zachary Flores picked out for the job before former Chief Otis Henry’s retirement was finalized.
In an email to the Sherman City Council members on the afternoon of Dec. 8, about an hour before Henry’s retirement was announced, City Manager Robby Hefton said the police chief had agreed to the terms of a separation agreement and the announcement of Flores’ new position would be coming soon.
“I will likely be announcing Zach’s appointment late tomorrow or sometime this weekend,” Hefton wrote. “I will announce at that time that Otis will be working with the new chief to ensure a smooth transition over the coming weeks.”
Hefton then told the council members not to discuss the reasons for the leadership change or the decision-making process with any of their constituents or members of the media.
“As a reminder, please do not share anything with anyone on this issue,” Hefton wrote. “I’ll forward the press release that we’re working on as soon as it’s ready.”
The emails are part of 61 pages of documents received by the Herald Democrat after a Texas Freedom of Information request on Jan. 16. The city declined to release the documents and sought an attorney general’s decision that the documents should be excepted from disclosure because they were “related to reasonably anticipated litigation.” Assistant Attorney General Sidney M. Pounds wrote in letter dated April 5 that Sherman “failed to demonstrate it reasonably anticipated litigation when it received the request for information.”
When talks with Flores began
In an interview with the Herald Democrat the day after Flores was named police chief, Hefton said official conversations about Flores taking over as police chief started in the weeks before Henry’s retirement becoming concrete.
Flores said on Monday that he didn’t recall exactly when the conversations began about him becoming chief, but he thought they might have occurred that week. He noted that he believes there were one or two conversations. The city announced Flores as the new chief on Monday, Dec. 12. Flores said it was made known to him that he would become chief just before the weekend.
“We came in on a Monday morning when the announcement was made to the police department,” Flores said. “I knew just prior to that weekend, so I don’t remember the exact date, if it was a Thursday or Friday, but just prior to that weekend.”
Hefton said Monday that any comments he made about Flores’ new position referred to him being interim chief.
“There was no decision on who was ultimately to be the chief until we went through the process,” Hefton said, but declined to detail the process that the city went through.
The city council unanimously confirmed Flores as chief during its Dec. 19 meeting.
In an email to council members on Dec. 7, the day before Henry’s retirement was announced, Hefton offered an update on his first meeting with Henry about removing him from the police chief role.
“The conversation with Otis did not go well,” Hefton wrote. “He has engaged an attorney. We worked through much of a separation agreement but I don’t know … if ultimately he’s going to accept anything or if he just wants his day in court. Because he’s engaged legal counsel, we should limit any discussion in writing and if you have any questions we should speak face to face.”
Hefton then asked City Attorney Brandon Shelby, who was copied on the email, to confirm whether that was correct and said the attorney should be present for all future conversations with Henry, or they should be in writing.
Why Henry was asked to leave
In January, Hefton released a written statement explaining Henry was asked to step down from his position as police chief because of “deficiencies in his leadership.”
“First and foremost, I want to reiterate that the City of Sherman owes a debt of gratitude to Otis Henry for three decades of service to our extraordinary police department,” Hefton said in his statement. “However, after assessing the needs of the Sherman Police Department and speaking with numerous former and current members of SPD, it became clear that a change was necessary due to deficiencies in his leadership.”
Ed Richardson, the attorney representing Henry, said his client was not made aware of any issues with his leadership and no concerns were discussed with him until he was approached about leaving the police chief role.
“He never received a reprimand, never received a note — he received nothing but excellent efficiency reviews, raises,” Richardson said. “To his knowledge, up until the day he was let go, there were absolutely no problems that city management had with the running of the department.”
Richardson said Henry was discriminated against because of his age, and earlier this year they filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Richardson said the EEOC sent a right to sue letter earlier this month, which means the EEOC has determined there are grounds for a claim. Richardson plans to file the complaint in federal court.
“When you go in and tell somebody who’s been a faithful steward with the police department for over 30 years, rising through the ranks, earning every promotion he ever got, including chief of police — that just without prior notice without opportunity to cure any perceived deficiency — that he is out as police chief, and then at the same time hand him a document saying you agree to not sue us for discriminating against you based on your age — I mean that ought to raise a red flag in any reasonable person’s mind that something’s not right here,” Richardson said.
New chief is announced
In an email to the council members on the morning of Dec. 8, the day Henry’s retirement was announced, Hefton apologized for not being able to speak with council members who had called.
“It’s a whirlwind right now, so I apologize in advance that I’ll be spotty today on availability,” Hefton wrote. “I’ve been consulting with Brandon (Shelby) and have also reached out to a firm we’ve used in the past that specializes in Civil Service matters. I’m waiting to hear back from them. We may have to make an emergency announcement this afternoon about the change. I’m also working on calling a meeting of all PD staff to discuss.”
That meeting was ultimately called for the morning of Dec. 12, when Flores was announced as the department’s new chief. Hefton sent another email to the council members on the afternoon of Dec. 8, shortly before the Henry’s retirement was announced.
“There has been a major breakthrough in working with Otis,” Hefton wrote in the same email that mentioned Flores’ impending promotion. “We are now working on press release and details celebrating Otis’ retirement effective 1/1/17. He has done a 180 degree change since yesterday. Very professional, just totally a different perspective on all of this. I was VERY encouraged by my meeting with him this morning.”
When asked Monday about what Henry’s 180 degree change entailed, Hefton said declined to comment.
“We’ve kind of moved on,” Hefton said. “It’s in the legal realm now, where we’re responding to EEOC complaints or whatever, but from an operational standpoint, it’s like water under the bridge. We’re going to let the legal process work its thing.”
Richardson said Henry never reached an agreement to any terms presented by the city, which he said is evidenced by the lack of any signed documents on the matter.
“There weren’t any negotiations, there weren’t any back and forth — none of that happened,” Richardson said.
Richardson said he couldn’t give an exact date for when Henry’s legal complaint will be filed, but said it will be sooner rather than later. After it is filed, he said he hopes to have a resolution within a year.
“This isn’t going to be pretty for the city,” Richardson said. “As a citizen it still just shocks my conscience that we have people in leadership roles in the city and upper city management who think that any of this OK.”