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Rubber Stamped Chief PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 07 November 2000 18:00
Mike Bladel’s short, strange trip from Scott County sheriff (and unopposed candidate for re-election) to Davenport police chief ended November 1 with a unanimous stamp of approval from the city council. But the ease of confirmation didn’t wipe away lingering questions about the failure of a nationwide search, the actions of the city administrator, and the motivation for Bladel’s move east down Fourth Street.

The new chief’s pledge to create a more open police department is suspect after a closed nomination and expedited confirmation process – at his own request – that reversed the procedures the city set up for the appointment of a new police chief.

In discussing his plans for the police department, Bladel has promised to reform the internal-affairs process and ensure that the public has access to department records and personnel. “The public is often more fearful of what they think we’re doing than what we’re actually doing,” he said.

This statement could easily apply to the negotiations between Bladel, a 22-year veteran of the Davenport police when he was elected sheriff eight years ago, and the city administrator about becoming the new police chief. The sheriff was offered the job before the city council and two review committees had the opportunity to give their feedback on his candidacy.

Instead of going though a process the city had meticulously crafted – and spent as much as $16,500 on – the sheriff’s confirmation was put on a fast track, without the same level of scrutiny that scared other candidates off.

Bladel could have submitted his résumé for the second chief search the city was planning, but he asked for a confidential process. He has offered different versions of his reasoning.

On the day his nomination was announced, he said that he didn’t think the city could afford to take several months to accept new applications and pare the list of candidates down.

“It was time for somebody to step up for the men and women of the Davenport Police Department,” Bladel said after being introduced to members of the city council October 26.

“Why wait?” he said later in an interview. “You don’t go to a bar fight and ask everybody to wait until you have your gloves on.”

But at a November 1 reception, just a few hours before his confirmation, Bladel gave a different reason for speeding his nomination along.

He said he didn’t want to be subjected to the media spotlight that caused other candidates to withdraw. “I asked to compress the process and keep it as confidential as possible,” he said, “so this thing did not go on for three to five months.” He added that he didn’t want to be considered unless the city could keep his candidacy quiet until it was clear that confirmation was likely.

Far from taking months, Bladel’s confirmation process covered all of six days.

Bladel had been asked to submit his name for consideration during the initial search for a chief, but he declined, saying that he had just begun a re-election campaign. He did, however, help conduct background checks on finalists.

The Mercer Group, a national executive-search firm, had selected eight finalists for the police-chief position out of 37 applicants, and a citizen’s review committee whittled the list down to six. Those finalists were supposed to be interviewed by a different city committee, after which City Administrator Jim Pierce would have made a recommendation to the city council. Finalists were also subject to a background check by the Mercer Group, and the scrutiny of the local media.

After multiple candidates withdrew their names from consideration, city leaders struggled with what to do next. Pierce recommended starting the search process over, having the Mercer Group advertise for candidates nationwide. Mayor Phil Yerington suggested going through the applications of candidates who did not make the list of eight finalists but withdrawing his own name to avoid any perceived conflict of interest.

The city was considering re-opening the nationwide search when Bladel and Pierce claimed to have first made contact on Tuesday, October 24.

Bladel said he changed his mind about the job when he saw the group of finalists dwindle. According to Mary Thee, Davenport’s director of human resources, Bladel called her October 24 and asked to see her. The two met between 8:30 and 9 a.m., when Bladel expressed interest in being the chief, she said. Thee then met with Pierce at about 10:30 a.m., she said.

After that, Thee heard nothing. “Like the rest of the world, I found out on Thursday,” she said. Thursday morning, October 26, Pierce began notifying city-council members about the choice of Bladel. That afternoon, members of the public-safety committee forwarded the nomination to the city council’s Committee of the Whole. Mercer Group Senior Vice President Thomas Dority enthusiastically supported Bladel’s nomination without a background check.

Aldermen and the mayor immediately began calling for Pierce’s resignation. The message was clear: great choice, bad process. (Pierce has been blamed for a number of problems, predominately for lack of communication with council and staff, but also for projects that failed under his direction that include the 53rd Street Mixed-Use Development and the Brammer expansion.) “There should have been more dialogue,” said Ward 2 Alderman George Nickolas.

Yerington was more pointed in criticizing Pierce. “He couldn’t have just thought of this at 8 a.m. this morning,” Yerington said after the public-safety meeting.

Bladel wouldn’t be chief if the original search had gone as planned.

“It was a bit unusual for that many candidates to withdraw,” Dority said. The reason, he said, was intense coverage by Quad City media, which included revelations of poor union relations, allegations of racial discrimination, and conflicts with politicians.

Dority said he expected local media outlets to do background checks on candidates. What was different about this search was that the Davenport police union and local media outlets conducted background checks before he’d completed his. Candidates were turned off, he said, because they didn’t have the opportunity to tell their sides of the story.

“The candidates were discouraged by a lot of the publicity,” Dority said. He added that he still considers the six finalists for the position qualified and well-suited to the Davenport job. “I was very confident in all six,” he said.

Some observers have questioned whether a candidate being sued for racial discrimination would have been an appropriate choice for a police department facing accusations of racial profiling. Ron Hansen, one of the last two finalists and former Rock Island police chief, withdrew as a candidate the day after a negative Quad-City Times article that quoted a former Rock Island alderman, as well as the lawyer of two African-American officers who are suing Hansen because he fired them. “Did your journalistic ethics really lead you to believe that either would provide a fair and balanced picture of me and my ability to lead a police department?” he asked in a letter to the paper’s editor.

Another finalist, Ken Conlee, expressed a similar resentment: “The Quad-City Times has been calling everyone in town, including my bosses and some of my staff and local newspaper,” he said, according to a memo from Pierce. “That is not the kind of environment that I want to be associated with.”

“They were pretty hard on all the candidates,” said Karl Rhomberg, a Democrat who in the past has asked Bladel to run for Congress. He added that Bladel told him he wanted to avoid facing the media scrutiny other candidates faced. (Fast-track confirmation precluded much background-checking before Bladel became chief, but it invites digging now because of how quickly and secretly it happened.)

While Bladel meets nearly all the requirements for the chief’s job, he falls short on at least one criterion: He doesn’t have the preferred master’s degree. Dority said that Bladel still has the “equivalent combination of education and experience” and would have made the list of finalists had he applied for the chief’s job through normal channels: “He would have been an ‘A’ candidate.” Of the eight finalists selected by the Mercer group, four had master’s degrees.

Dority also said the city needed to move forward, even though Bladel’s quick confirmation allowed for little public input or review through the search method the city established. “There’s process and practicality,” Dority said. “It seemed to me the better part of valor to proceed.”

Bladel’s salary will start at $82,500 a year, significantly less than the $90,100 offered by Pierce (without the consent or knowledge of the city council or mayor), but more than the $73,300 he made as sheriff. The move also improves Bladel’s pension; it increases the base pay (on which retirement income is based), while extra years of service boost the percentage of that salary he’ll receive. Bladel will be 55 – the age at which police officers can begin to collect their pensions – when his four-year contract is completed.

The financial incentives are significant, but there might have been other motivating factors. One Davenport police officer said that some of Bladel’s relations with his staff at the sheriff’s office had been strained by a perception of favoritism, both in promotions and discipline of his officers.

Sergeant Michael Hill, president of union representing sheriff’s deputies, said Bladel had an “excellent” relationship with the union, however. “He always had an open door,” he said. When asked whether there had ever been friction about preferential treatment, Hill responded, “Never.”

Dave Turner, chairperson of the Davenport police union, said Davenport officers were excited about Bladel. “He seems like he’s going to have us in a more active role,” he said.

Turner added that officers aren’t upset that Bladel didn’t have to jump through the same hoops as other candidates. “He would’ve probably been in the same position if he had gone through the process,” he said. “The community loves him.”

Others who know Bladel say his motives are noble.

Rhomberg said the new chief simply wants to solve problems. The Scott County sheriff’s office was facing similar difficulties when Bladel took over, Rhomberg said, and problems within the Davenport police department appealed to him. “He wanted a challenge,” he said. “He wasn’t really enamored of politics.”
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