Connell's ex-police chief reaches deal with city

Tyler Richardson, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 7, 2014 

Connell's ousted police chief has reached a deal with the city to reverse his termination, pay him a severance package and clear him of sexual harassment allegations.

Former Mayor Gary Walton fired Chief Michael Kessler in September, citing neglecting job duties and other misconduct, including sexual harassment and viewing pornography on a city-issued cellphone.

Kessler, 51, had been chief for more than five years.

Walton negotiated the deal and signed it before he left office. And Monday, the city council unanimously approved it, said Dan Hultgrenn, Connell's attorney.

The agreement allows Kessler to resign and receive four months salary, about $24,800. He also will be paid for accrued vacation and sick leave.

In exchange, Kessler agreed not to sue the city.

Newly installed Mayor Bruce "Blacky" Blackwell declined to take calls from the Herald about the agreement.

Two council members reached Tuesday also refused to discuss it. Three other council members could not be reached for comment.

Blackwell said publicly during his campaign that Kessler should have been reprimanded rather than fired. Walton could not be reached Tuesday.

The four-page agreement says there was not enough evidence to prove Kessler sexually harassed two women.

And a sexually suggestive comment Kessler allegedly made to a third woman did not meet the state's criteria for sexual harassment, said the agreement.

Kessler admitted to the Herald to visiting adult websites on the city-issued phone when he was off duty and making the comment. However, he said he should have been disciplined rather than fired.

He declined to comment on specifics of the agreement.

His contract said if he was fired for just cause, the city was not required to pay him severance. Kessler earned about $74,000 a year as police chief.

He said he became a "scapegoat in a political mess."

"I have been in law enforcement for almost 30 years," Kessler wrote in an email to the Herald. "It is my opinion that the investigation was not objective and (was) biased against me."

An investigator from insurance carrie, Canfield was hired by the city to review the allegations but Walton fired Kessler before the investigation was finished.

Among the allegations, Walton claimed Kessler failed to keep his staff current on firearms training, failed to conduct performance reviews of officers and hired reserve officers without approval from the city council, according to the termination letter.

Monday's agreement said some of those allegations were found to be unsubstantiated or inconclusive, including the lack of firearms training.

However, Kessler failed to perform performance evaluations. And it's unclear if he appointed reserve officers without council approval.

Kessler claims a Connell police officer lied to a Canfield investigator about the lack of firearms training.

The Franklin County Prosecutor's Office reviewed Kessler's complaints and forwarded the information to Walla Walla prosecutors because of a conflict of interest. Walla Walla Prosecutor James Nagle told the Herald that his office is reviewing the case to determine if the officer lied.

In addition to the severance package, the city agreed to give any future potential employers only basic information about Kessler's employment in Connell, unless both parties agree to release more information.

And Kessler agreed not to file any lawsuits or claims against the city.

Kessler told the Herald that while the agreement helps set the record straight, he would rather have his job back.

"I have been out in the community here and so far, I have not come in contact with anyone who feels that I should have been terminated," Kessler wrote in an email. "They feel discipline was in order but not termination. I am sure there is someone who believes I got what I deserved, but I haven't talked to them."

The city has begun its search for a new police chief. The interim police chief, Alan Chertok, told the Herald he doesn't plan on applying. Chertok has been acting chief for about three months.

Deadline to apply for the job is Jan. 15.

-- Tyler Richardson: 582-1556; trichardson@tricityherald.com; Twitter; @Ty_richardson

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