OPINION – In 2011, on the heels of a revelation about possible unethical conduct by the city council with regards to the purchase of the carousel, I had the opportunity to meet St. George Mayor Dan McArthur at the Clean Air Summit.
He said to me: “Dallas, you sure are being awful hard on my city council.”
I said to him: “Mayor, at this point, I am just repeating what they say.”
And what I am hearing today, two years later, is that more and more people are saying: The mayor is just a welder with a title (as he described himself recently); the city council is just a support group; and the city manager, Gary Esplin, in spite of all prudent democratic process, runs this city and may even consider it “his city.”
In other words, the wizard behind the curtain may just be Esplin.
At the risk of tapping into a waning interest in an ongoing developing investigation, I propose that the recent process surrounding the animal-shelter failure reveals as much about the machinations of the St. George city government that need an overhaul as it does about the shelter itself.
When it was first reported that the City of St. George would be conducting its own investigation on the animal shelter, much of the community raised an eyebrow at the wisdom of such a decision. As St. George News reported, former Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam later said it was never a good idea for that to happen.
The officials justify the internal investigation based on a chain of command according to their own city policy; specifically: The former animal shelter manager, the main individual under investigation in the case, Dave Vane, answers directly to Chief of Police Marlon Stratton; Stratton answers directly to Mayor McArthur. The conflicts of interest are painfully obvious.
Especially in an election cycle.
St. George City Councilman Jon Pike recently said, “There are ways to regain public trust: 1. Independent investigation. Wish we would’ve done it. I asked for it. I was told we really couldn’t. Can we now? 2. Institute an advisory board ….”
Following the first public forum on the issue at St. George City Hall, the city officials went into a closed door session. While we are not privy to what was discussed, closed door sessions are for personnel issues and threatened or pending litigation. It is reasonable to conclude that on advice of the city’s attorney, Sean Guzman, the investigation was designed as a personnel investigation so that it could be handled internally. In fact, the findings were published as: “Professional Responsibility Complaint Investigation.” Following their logic, the investigation could be conducted by the police department since the shelter falls under its jurisdiction.
The problem with that logic is that it was more than a personnel investigation. While Vane, and perhaps a few others, were in fact being investigated, what was also deserving of investigation was the policies and procedures for the shelter itself, dating back a least a decade.
The allegations extended beyond the shelter and Vane to the city. The city had been called out as culpable and negligent in its duty to run the shelter in accordance with law, in deference to ethical treatment of, not only animals – but citizens of the community as well.
Nevertheless, the city opted for its own investigation and here we are.
When it was first announced that it would happen this way, I suggested my foreboding, on 1450 KZNU as well as in print, that the findings of this investigation might not coincide with the findings of parallel investigations being conducted by journalists.
This is the point where those who are finding all of this a bit cumbersome begin to lose interest. DON’T.
The stark contrast itself belabors an obvious point: this should not have been investigated internally.
Why was it?
Could it be that the city management and attorney were concerned about liability? That Vane might retaliate if fired, arguing that he only did what he was told to do?
You see, according to the investigation findings, Vane did not do anything criminal, but rather exercised simple and consistent poor judgment. Judgment, mind you, that was mandated by his superiors and a tight budget. (Isn’t it interesting to see that they have all the money they need for the shelter now?)
It is glaringly convenient that Vane not only kept his job with a shift in position, but will continue working in the same department as an animal control officer.
Who runs the city?
The nagging question, after all this, remains: Who was ultimately responsible?
If you were to take McArthur’s response, you might conclude the whole fiasco is an issue overblown by a bunch of fanatics.
If you were to take Esplin’s response – who argued to reporter Michael Flynn that in all these years no citizens ever brought up the allegations – you might say it was the fault of the citizens.
If you were to take the city council’s approach, at least as stated by its own member, Pike –“it is the responsibility of the elected officials – all six of us.” – you might chalk it up to council negligence in oversight.
If you were to take Stratton’s approach, who owned the responsibility of the Police Department’s jurisdiction over the animal shelter, you might be in full support of its investigation and corrective action.
But the problem with all of these blame games is that the gravity of the allegations deserved an investigation that was external and unfettered by any interested party’s control.
It was not the Police Department’s decision to investigate itself
This was not the decision of the chief or deputy chief; good men, good cops, both of them.
Stratton and Farnsworth were following orders that sprung from that first closed-door session of city officials.
Farnsworth did what he was told. He investigated the matter with the facts presented to him and reported his findings.
What is not standing well is the fact that the police department investigated the matter at all.
So who specifically made that call?
Esplin said to Flynn: “I assigned the deputy chief of the police department,” to investigate the allegations.
Was an outside investigation ever considered? If not why?
The arguments for an outside investigation are several, depending on who you talk to. Some maintain that because the allegations included crimes – occurring within an arm of the police department – detectives other than those associated with the St. George Police Department should have been engaged to find out if those allegations are true.
I, personally, maintain that an outside investigation was warranted because of the insidious nature of all of these machinations of the St. George city government.
If an outside investigation was intentionally averted, why?
If Vane answers to Stratton who answers to McArthur, how is it that Esplin himself gave the order to Farnsworth to investigate the shelter?
The deputy chief answers to the chief, the chief answers to the mayor. The city manager serves at the pleasure of the mayor.
So how is it that Esplin has any role in this chain of command?
A reasonable speculation here is that Farnsworth was made to conduct the investigation so that the chief and the mayor were at least one step removed in the event that things proved bad.
But things have proved bad, even more so, as some are calling the whole process a cover-up.
Many a powerful man has fallen, not for what he did, but for what he did to cover it up.
So where are we now and what do we the people do with this?
We are now at a point where, not only does there need to be a thorough investigation of the allegations at the shelter by an outside source, but also an investigation into why and how it was conducted in this manner to begin with. We can call for this.
With whom does the buck stop and who is accountable in our local government for this? Was there an attempt to cover something up? Or an attempt at the more benign “make it go away?”
Pike, Farnsworth, and Stratton are to be commended for being the only people in this entire process who have stepped up to the plate and volunteered to take ALL the blame. Commendable, but in fact, it simply is not all theirs to take.
On a side note, as commendation goes, let’s notice that while all this was going on, the St. George Police Department managed to handle a murder-suicide, rescue a teenager from human trafficking, bust at least one drug dealer, and make massive improvements to the shelter, thereby owning their promise to not only identify a problem, but to solve it.
On the other hand, what comes from our city manager is excuses, counter-accusations, attempts to deflect attention onto other shelters in other cities, and most significant of all: the apparent claim to have the authority to give orders to the police department.
It has been said by many in this community that Gary Esplin is the wizard behind the curtain who runs this city.
And more importantly, should he?
In a democratic process, the city should be run by the elected officials who work for the citizens. It stands to reason that those appointed by our elected officials, also work for the citizens.
The citizens run the city.
See you out there.
Related posts / resources
- Bad medicine: Shelter report shadowed by questions
- Animal shelter investigation findings, action
- Mayor accused of intimidating animal shelter volunteers
- City Council passes resolution to improve animal shelter
- Soul searching, regret, reform after animal shelter allegations
- Wednesday meeting for public discussion of animal shelter conditions
- City launches inquiry into allegations of abuse at St. George Animal Shelter
Dallas Hyland is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.