Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout to include comments from Henry's attorney.
The city of Sherman released new details Friday on the exit of former Police Chief Otis Henry from his duties with the department because of “deficiencies in his leadership.”
In a written statement issued Friday afternoon, City Manager Robby Hefton said following Henry’s decision to retire from the department after the city manager asked him to take on a “different role” with the force, Henry initially agreed to take on a consultant role for the city, but has now declined that option. As part of the written statement, city staff said Henry has “retained legal counsel in relation to this matter.”
One of Henry’s attorneys, Ed Richardson, said in a phone interview Friday that the city’s new police chief, Zachary Flores, is not qualified for the position.
“The city received today from us, on Otis Henry’s behalf, a letter detailing the events that took place in early December, which culminated in appointment as chief of police, of probably the most unqualified person to ever hold that office in the history of the city, possibly the state,” Richardson said. “It’s the most clear example of age discrimination that I’ve seen in almost two decades of practicing law and handling employment law claims.”
Flores became a patrol officer for Sherman in 2007 and was eventually promoted to sergeant in May 2015. He also served in the honor guard, criminal investigation division and as a field training officer. Flores said in December that he left the department to work in city management later in 2015. He said the move was a career decision to expand his role within city government, and it provided valuable experience in working alongside city management.
Richardson said Lt. Stephen Dean, who was demoted earlier this month from his previous position as an assistant chief with the department, will also be pursuing a claim against the city.
“Stephen is still at the PD, he was just demoted as part of the citywide purge of qualified people that’s going on,” Richardson said. “He’s … sure not going to let them run him off. In fact, when he stood up to them and told them he didn’t like the discrimination that had been carried out against his chief, he got demoted shortly thereafter.”
Sherman announced on Dec. 8 that Henry would retire effective Jan. 1. On Dec. 12, Hefton named Zachary Flores as Henry’s replacement, making Flores the acting chief the same day. The city council then unanimously confirmed Flores as chief at the Dec. 19 meeting.
“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.”
Richardson said Henry’s performance record as chief was impeccable.
“Never a reprimand, never an action item saying you need to change certain things or do things differently,” Richardson said. “Just less than two months after receiving a pretty nice raise and a very good performance evaluation, he was summarily dismissed. Mr. Hefton can call it whatever he wants, but when you bring somebody in and say you’re no longer the police chief, no matter what you do, that’s being discharged. You can’t get around that.”
Richardson said Dean also had great performance evaluations.
“He was doing a wonderful job,” Richardson said. “In fact, when he was demoted, they went out of their way to tell him it was not a disciplinary course of action, yet they cost him and his family a substantial amount of salary and benefits in the years to come. This is a man that’s dedicated 20 years to keeping our city safe and has never had, to my knowledge, any kind of a scar on his record one way or another.”
City staff explained civil service rules allow a chief to pick his assistants as long as he returns the previous assistants to their previous roles. Dean was returned to his previous rank of lieutenant on Jan. 9, the same day Jason Jeffcoat was promoted to assistant chief over the department’s operations bureau.
Hefton said he met with Henry in early December and asked him to take on a different role in the department in order to “retain his institutional knowledge and utilize his strengths of policy development and creative problem solving.”
“Otis declined that offer and decided instead to submit his resignation and retire,” Hefton said. “As part of his departure, and because I valued his input, I then asked Otis to remain on as a part-time consultant. He indicated to me that he intended to accept that role. However, late last week, I learned that Otis had decided to decline the offer, thus officially ending his tenure with the City of Sherman.”
Richardson said when Henry had that initial conversation with Hefton, the city manager handed him a legal document that would “waive any claims he might have under the age discrimination and employment act.”
“So that ought to tell you right up front they knew exactly what they were doing and it wouldn’t jive with the law when they did it,” Richardson said. “I’ve never heard of that before.”
Hefton said Henry’s decision not to take the part-time consultant role resulted in the city manager feeling an obligation to inform Sherman citizens of the details surrounding the former police chief’s departure.
“The City of Sherman is incredibly blessed to have an excellent police department staffed with men and women who do a wonderful job of protecting our city,” Hefton said. “And as city manager, it is my duty to make sure their leadership team is as effective as possible. Under our new chief, Zachary Flores, I have extremely high hopes that our officers will be able to flourish in their careers, and I wish all the best to Otis in his retirement.”
Richardson said he believes Hefton may have withheld the full story of Henry’s retirement from the Sherman City Council.
“It certainly is rather convenient that without opening up the position of police chief to application by qualified law enforcement personnel within such a short time of this initial meeting, Mr. Flores is named as the successor,” Richardson said. “Mr. Flores was supposedly running a secret investigation doing, from what I understand, exit interviews of former Sherman police officers, without the knowledge of the human resources director, his boss at the time, Wayne Blackwell, who has himself now been demoted into a job that before this week did not exist.”
City staff confirmed that Blackwell, who formerly served as the city’s director of human resources, is now the city’s training and development manager, though he still has the same supervisor, Assistant City Manager Don Keene.
“He (Flores) was doing the investigation under the direction of the city manager and obviously became the beneficiary of that investigation, which raises all kind of ethical questions about conflict of interest,” Richardson said.
Flores said Friday that he’d spoken with the city attorney and wasn’t going to have any statements at this time on Richardson’s comments about him or Dean’s role with the department.
“With all of this, I’m not going to have any statements concerning any of it at this time,” Flores said.
Possible legal action
Richardson said there have been no negotiations with the city, but the letter sent by him and fellow attorneys Robert Earl Richardson Jr. and Ronald R. Huff did have “overtures in that direction.”
“Anytime an employee is wrongfully discharged, by law they’re entitled to collect any lost salary and benefits that they suffered because they were discharged,” Richardson said. “Typically, the way you’d look at that is how much somebody would have made had they continued working to retirement age.”
Richardson said no specific amount has been discussed with the city and provided a copy of the letter sent to Sherman Mayor David Plyler — with copies also sent to Hefton and all six members of the city council — to the Herald Democrat with the salary and benefit portion redacted. Community and Support Services Manager Nate Strauch said the amount discussed in that portion was more than $1 million.
“That’s the number asked for not to file suit,” Strauch said.
In a statement sent via email, Plyler said he was “incredibly saddened” that Henry “has decided to tarnish his legacy by threatening the taxpayers of this city with an expensive lawsuit.”
“It’s not fair to our excellent new police chief, it’s not fair to our hardworking city council and staff, and most of all, it’s not fair to our citizens,” Plyler said. “We are disappointed that Otis has once again decided to use his lawyers to harm the integrity of the city of Sherman.”
Henry sued the city in 1996 while a patrolman because he believed he was passed over for a promotion to sergeant because of an affair with the wife of a fellow police officer.
Richardson said these kinds of claims must go before the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission before they would ever reach the litigation stage.
“So that’ll be kind of what happens next, but I think our city manager has a lot of questions he needs to answer, both for you all and the people he works for on the city council and in the mayor office,” Richardson said. “And I would be very, very surprised if any of those folks knew this was going on before he told them, falsely I might add, that Chief Henry just decided to retire.”
Henry was named Sherman’s chief of police in March 2013, taking over after former Chief Tom Watt retired. Henry began his career with the Sherman Police Department as a reserve officer in 1983 and worked his way up before being promoted to assistant chief in 2005.
A 31-year-old Trenton High graduate, Flores holds a Texas Master Peace Officer license and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, the news release issued last month announcing his appointment says. He also has an associate degree in business administration from Grayson College and a bachelor’s degree in business from Texas A&M University at Commerce.
Herald Democrat requests
The Herald Democrat requested documents from the city through the Texas Public Information Act, and it received a portion of those documents. The request asked for electronic correspondence and documents related to Henry’s personnel file and leave from office including letters of retirement, resignation or separation, and paperwork of separation agreements.
The request was sent on Dec. 12, and the city responded on Dec. 22 asking for more time to gather the documents as rotating vacation schedules interrupted the process. The city extended the deadline to Jan. 13.
The Herald Democrat received documents on Jan. 13, but they did not include any emails, separation agreements or letters of resignation. A written statement was not provided as to why those documents were excluded. On Jan. 16, the Herald Democrat again requested the emails and paperwork with redefined parameters. On Friday, the Herald Democrat received a selection of the requested emails and a letter from the city attorney dated Jan. 26.
The letter stated a portion of the information requested is protected under various sections of the Texas Government Code, and the city requested a determination from the Texas Attorney General’s Office. It stated the Herald Democrat would be copied on the request to the attorney general, but the Herald Democrat did not receive that request as of Friday.
Herald Democrat reporter Alex Maxwell contributed to this article.