When Sherman officials were considering offering former Police Chief Otis Henry a separation agreement that would include a payment, they compared the option to what was given to the city’s former fire chief, Jeff J. Jones.
Emails obtained by the Herald Democrat last month show City Manager Robby Hefton told the City Council Sherman has a “precedent” of paying employees to resign.
“I need to know if I have your general direction to be able to move ahead with negotiating a possible separation agreement, that could involve $$,” Hefton wrote in an email on Dec. 6, which was two days before the city announced Henry’s retirement from the Sherman Police Department. “I can’t tell you what that amount would be right now but *could* likely be something like we did with our former Fire Chief.”
After various council members asked for details of the separation agreement with Jones, Hefton sent another email noting he didn’t remember all the details of the Jones agreement.
“There was a separation agreement where he (fire chief) was paid to ‘consult’ the City on various matters and was also paid the remaining portion of his accumulated leave balances,” Hefton wrote. “This was in exchange for him agreeing to release the City from any and all claims, including the agreement not to sue the City. From memory, it amounted to about 8-9 months of salary. I can get an exact amount tomorrow at the office, but that was the gist of it. So we have precedent of doing this in the past.”
In a prepared statement sent to the Herald Democrat Friday, Hefton said the word “consult” was in quotation marks in his email because “the ‘consulting’ aspect of these agreements allows an employer to have the departing employee on retainer, of sorts, to help the employer address any issues that may arise during the transition period.”
The separation agreement and general release between Jones and the city was recently obtained by the Herald Democrat through an open records request. It shows the former fire chief was paid more than $71,000 after being relieved of his duties on April 16, 2015.
The agreement is similar to what Henry was offered by the city in December. Henry never signed the city’s separation agreement last year and recently filed suit against Sherman in federal district court claiming the city removed him from his role as police chief because of his age.
Hefton’s statement in response to questions about the agreement with Jones goes on to say when a change in senior leadership is necessary in an organization such as a business or government body, it is standard operating procedure to have separation agreements to ensure that all parties’ interests are addressed.
“JJ offered nearly ten years of service to the City, and he brought about many needed changes during his tenure,” Hefton said in his statement. “When the time came for a change in leadership in that department, he and the City worked together in a reasonable and amicable way on a transition plan that was acceptable to everyone involved. This was accomplished because JJ was willing to honestly and forthrightly have a mature, meaningful conversation about how the transition would look. Having a mutually acceptable transition is the goal of any separation agreement, and that is feasible only when everyone is willing to work in good faith towards that end.”
After Henry’s attorney filed a complaint against the city with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, statements from city officials have been critical of the former police chief’s unwillingness to participate in the conversation about a transition plan Hefton sought for the change in leadership.
“Gone are the days when a man accepted responsibility for his actions and approached his next job with humility — call that the high road,” Community & Support Services Manager Nate Strauch said via email last week when asked for comment on Henry’s lawsuit. “I guess there’s more money on the low road. Thankfully, both roads lead to the same place: The truth.”
The money paid to Jones included “his normal wages plus a total of 153 hours of accrued vacation through the resignation date of May 31, 2015, in the amount of $7,481.70 and 16 hours of holiday pay in the amount of $782.40.” The agreement also states Jones would receive 1,092 hours of sick leave pay, which amounts to 27.3 weeks, in the amount of $53,398.80.
Jones was given 21 days of paid administrative leave to consider the terms of the agreement after being relieved of his duties on April 16, 2015. The agreement goes on to say Jones would be contracted as a consultant to the city manager for two months for a consulting fee of $10,000. As a consultant, the agreement says Jones was supervised directly by the city manager and was not required to go into any city facility to complete tasks.
As part of the agreement, Jones also agreed not to sue the city or make any disparaging remarks against it, and to keep the agreement confidential.
Jones did not respond to phone messages left and a social media message sent by the Herald Democrat seeking comment.
The day Jones was relieved of his duties at the Sherman Fire Department, he sent a one-sentence letter of resignation to Hefton.
“I am resigning my employment as Fire Chief with the City of Sherman effective May 31, 2015, in order to pursue other interests,” he wrote.
Before being relieved of his duties, Jones was the city’s fire chief for nine years and had more than 30 years of firefighting experience. The day after Jones was relieved of his duties, April 17, 2015, Hefton announced Jones had resigned from the department but did not give a reason for the resignation.
“Chief Jones has been a loyal and dedicated employee who has always held the safety and welfare of the community as his highest priority,” Hefton said in a prepared statement at the time. “As fire chief, he has seen the city through some very challenging times and traumatic events.”
The last performance review in Jones’ file was dated Nov. 1, 2012, and completed by former City Manager George Olson. That evaluation listed Jones’ overall performance as “exceeds expectations,” the second highest designation available. Hefton became city manager following Olson’s retirement at the end of March 2015.
In 2014, a former Sherman firefighter filed a civil suit against the city and Jones alleging wrongful termination. In 2013, another firefighter filed a grievance with the city because Jones accused him of violating the department’s drugs and alcohol policy. No documents related to those incidents were included in Jones’ personnel file, which the Herald Democrat also obtain through an open records request.
A memo that is included in his file states Jones was reinstated from administrative leave on August 22, 2007, following an internal investigation. Media reports from the time state Jones was on leave for five weeks while an investigation was conducted into allegations firefighters were given answers to the national incident management system test. KTEN reported the investigation did not reveal any misconduct by Jones.
The memo from Olson states he told Jones he had “serious concerns about the operation” of the department when Jones was placed on administrative leave.
“Unfortunately, the internal investigation confirmed those concerns,” Olson wrote. “However, in the interest of improving conditions in the Fire Department, I am reinstating you to the positions of Fire Chief. … I expect you to ensure that the SFD functions smoothly, both on the administrative level and the public safety level. My primary expectation for you as Fire Chief is that the Fire Department operates with the professionalism, honesty, and integrity that is expected and deserved by the citizens of Sherman.”
Following Jones’ departure, Hefton named then-Division Chief Danny Jones interim fire chief and later made the appointment permanent.
Henry’s lawsuit against the city was filed on May 10. It states Henry was summoned to the city manager’s office on Dec. 6 and Hefton said Henry would no longer be police chief after Jan. 1. Henry said he was told he could decide to take retirement or not but he would no longer be chief.
“The explanation offered by Hefton was that (Henry) did not fit in the new direction the City was taking,” the complaint states. “It should be noted that (Henry) did not receive a single reprimand during his tenure as police chief, nor was he ever made aware of any issues Hefton or any other city official had with his leadership of the police department.”