Help wanted: Looking for a person to be police chief in a small northern city in Kern County. Pay not all that great, but excellent career opportunity. Serious inquiries only. If interested, contact McFarland City Manager John Wooner.
Yes, the city of McFarland is looking for a new police chief -- again. The last one, Greg Herrington, resigned earlier this month. The new hire will be the fourth permanent chief in five years since McFarland re-established its police department in 2009. I hope the city gets a flood of qualified candidates from which to choose.
But whomever the city winds up hiring, I'll tell you this: It better be someone with squeaky clean credentials. Preferably someone who has not been fired from other law enforcement agencies, or was forced to resign rather than get fired.
It would help if that person has no criminal convictions or been investigated for fraud. Such officers have actually been hired in McFarland. And to make sure candidates are on the straight and narrow, Wooner and McFarland Mayor Manuel Cantu should make each candidate swear on a stack of bibles and for the life of their madrecita that they are telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me J. Edgar Hoover.
OK, maybe leave out Hoover, since he wasn't so ethical himself.
Seriously now, McFarland's police department needs some serious help. To recap: the city decided six years to dump police services being provided by the Kern County Sheriff's Office and re-establish its own police department as a cost-saving measure. The Sheriff's Office was costing the city $1.6 million a year back then. Yet city records show McFarland spent $1.8 million in fiscal year 2012-13, $2 million in 2013-14 and is projected to spend $2.1 in the current fiscal year, 2014-15, for its police department.
So in 2009, McFarland re-started its police department after a 17-year hiatus. But the results so far have been less then stellar.
The first police chief, David Frazer, abruptly resigned in 2010 after just 10 months on the job. Frazer reportedly had differences with then-City Manager Bob Wilburn.
Chief number two, David Oberhoffer, took over, lasted less than nine months on the job and was fired in July 2011 for unknown reasons. Then Sgt. Greg Herrington was eventually promoted from within, made acting chief and later permanent chief. Wooner and Cantu signed off on his three-year contract dated June 14, 2012, which means Herrington left with more than a year remaining on the job. Under the terms of the contract, Herrington is not eligible for severance pay if he resigned.
As previously reported in numerous stories, internal records from Herrington's previous employer, the Glynn County Police Department in Georgia, reveal that Herrington drove drunk while off-duty, crashed his patrol car and then lied to internal investigators about the accident in 1996. He was fired, appealed, but the dismissal was upheld.
In 2009, after a five-year stint with the Banning Police Department in Riverside County, Herrington and a host of other officers were also fired, but this time the reason is unclear, as state law prevents the disclosure of a disciplinary measures taken against an officer unless by court order.
Numerous other officers who once worked in Banning then joined Herrington as officers in McFarland. And the rest, as they say, is history. Some of these same officers wound up either being charged or convicted of criminal charges prior to or during their employment with McFarland. And yet somehow, all these hires in McFarland passed a background check. How in the world was that possible?
Herrington's departure from McFarland, he says, was strictly voluntary. It was he, said Herrington, who requested administrative leave on June 19 and later resigned effective July 1.
"There were no issues, no investigations, no problems with my departure," said Herrington, who lives in southern California. "I requested administrative leave to be with my family."
But wait, there's more. Turns out the No. 2 in charge at the police department, Commander Steven Nieves, is also suddenly gone. Nieves was hired and then promoted under Herrington's watch even though Nieves had a criminal conviction.
In 2011, Nieves pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of false imprisonment in San Bernardino County. Less than two weeks after Herrington went on administrative leave, Nieves went on a military leave of absence.
A member of the Army Reserve, Nieves was deployed overseas. Under the law, he can't be terminated so he remains a city employee.
The acting chief replacing Herrington is Sgt. Scot Kimble, who joined McFarland P.D. in 2011. Kimble also worked at Banning P.D. prior to joining McFarland. Kimble appears to be a nice, up front sort of guy who may or may not be interested in taking over and turning around a department with a severe image problem.
City leaders in McFarland, though, have made things worse by refusing to be transparent about its troubled police department. Worse, city council members appear to be in the dark about who gets hired to patrol the streets and serve the people of McFarland.
When asked his opinion about Herrington's departure, Councilman Rafael Melendez answered in a hostile tone, "Go ask the city manager, he's the one responsible." Great advice. Except that Wooner also refused to say anything about anything, again leaving the public wondering what was going on in its own police department.
Most revealing is that neither Wooner nor the city council up to now has ever publicly said, "Greg Herrington did a great job here in McFarland. We wish him well."
McFarland is at a point to make a fresh start, sort of. The city can forge ahead with its own police department or it can consider going back to the Kern County Sheriff's Office for police protection. If city leaders choose to remain with the status quo, they now have the chance to do a thorough background check on all applicants. No more surprises, please.
And speaking of transparency, It would be a good idea for the city to have the three final candidates for police chief appear at a community forum and answer any and all questions from the public, which hopefully will ask questions that city leaders in McFarland have failed to ask.
-- Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.