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Letter outlines union's complaints against Bainbridge Island police chief

The poor judgement of Police Chief Jon Fehlman has cost the city of Bainbridge Island time and money, according to the "vote of no confidence" letter the Bainbridge Island Police Guild has submitted to city officials.

The guild took a vote of no confidence — a political face slap that carries no punishment beyond the court of public opinion — during a union meeting Monday.

Police Lt. Bob Day, the president of the guild, said the letter was delivered to Councilman David Ward that night.

The two-page letter was part of a 29-page packet that made numerous accusations against Fehlman.

Fehlman was appointed chief in 2009, and some of the guild's accusations date back three years. Fehlman could not be reached for comment Tuesday; he has been on leave from the department since mid-May for health-related reasons.

The letter, signed by Day, claims the chief was involved in two accidents involving police vehicles that he did not report.

The guild also claimed that he received advance travel funds in late 2009 but did not submit expense reports within 10 days of his return.

The union also said Fehlman "may have perjured himself under oath" when he gave a deposition in the federal civil rights trial prompted by the Ostling shooting, when Fehlman said that an officer involved in the shooting had been reprimanded when the officer had not.

The guild also blamed Fehlman for police case report files that were found in the office of former manager Brenda Bauer after she was fired by the city council.

"Chief Fehlman either provided the reports or is responsible for others that provided the reports to Ms. Bauer," the letter states.

The guild also said Fehlman was not truthful when he said he didn't know of a reserve officer's criminal history.

In an addendum that accompanied the letter, the guild criticized Fehlman for buying a BlackBerry cell phone at the Kitsap Mall shortly after he was made chief without going through the proper procurement process.

The guild also claimed Fehlman also bought a new Chevrolet SUV without permission, which was later returned to the dealership.

When Fehlman eventually received the city council's OK to buy a vehicle, the guild said he did not put state exempt license plates on the vehicle for more than a year.

"It is believed that he did not want his vehicle to be identified as a police/government vehicle," the letter states.

The guild also complained that the chief used the vehicle to take his children to school, and also to drive it to football practice for his coaching position with an off-island school.

The letter also noted that when Fehlman purchased a third vehicle, the third seat was taken out of the old vehicle and placed in the new one, and said Fehlman also used the new vehicle for family and personal use.

The guild also complained that the chief ordered "special confidential license plates" for his police SUV. The union charged that Fehlman had violated department policy by using his vehicle as his family car, and that employees had seen the chief driving civilians or family members in the vehicle on- and off-island.

The letter also said a member of his family was hurt during an off-island athletic event and was airlifted to a Seattle hospital. The guild complained that Fehlman had used his emergency lights and siren on his police SUV when taking family members to the hospital.

According to the letter, Fehlman did not report two accidents involving police vehicles.

In the first incident, Fehlman's SUV was struck in the rear while it was at the city's public works yard. Repairs cost more than $1,000, the guild noted.

In the second accident, Fehlman was a passenger in a Bainbridge Island patrol car that was involved in a funeral procession for a fallen officer. That vehicle was also rear-ended, by an officer from another police department, and the guild said Fehlman told the other department, "Don't worry about it, we'll take care of it."

That accident, which also caused more than $1,000 in damage to the Bainbridge vehicle, was also not reported.

The guild said the failure to report the accidents violated police department policy and state law.

In the letter, the guild did not mention when the accidents occurred.

The guild also listed what it saw as violations of state law and city policy on personnel and labor issues.

It said the chief had committed an unfair labor practice by requiring officers to write a certain amount of traffic tickets, but the order was rescinded after the union complained.

The union also claimed that Fehlman had left a shotgun and several handguns in his SUV when the vehicle was taken to the public works department for work.

The guild also complained about a new logo that Fehlman adopted for the police department, "One Mission, One Team," and that he would not meet with "certain community groups that he feels are compromised by 'a bunch of haters.'"

The union also said Fehlman's actions and comments after the Ostling shooting were "problematic."

The guild complained that the chief had off-the-record conversations with those involved in the shooting, and faulted him for not allowing the participation of Bainbridge personnel in the investigation.

It also criticized Fehlman for naming the officers who were involved in the Ostling shooting shortly after the incident.

Day, the guild president, said the vote of no confidence was taken after officers talked about the chief's performance in a discussion that lasted more than an hour June 11.

Day declined to give the exact vote tally of the 16 members who participated.

"I don't want to give out specific numbers, because then people will start parsing it," Day said.

"Suffice it to say that nearly 80 percent of the guild voted no confidence," he said.

Though the no-confidence letter asked for the removal of Fehlman as chief of police, under Bainbridge's council-manager form of government, the city council has no authority to fire employees.

Instead, that power rests with the city manager.

Day noted that the guild had twice met with Bauer, the former manager, and with Interim City Manager Morgan Smith.

"However, each time the response was indifference, denial of the existence of any problems, and a refusal to take any action," Day said in the letter. "Therefore, the guild is asking the council to please take the appropriate actions before conditions degrade further."

The guild vote was announced in a press release Tuesday.

The union declined to provide the Bainbridge Island Review with a copy of the letter and packet given to city officials; the documents were obtained via a public records request to the city.

"It's not a step that we wanted to do," Day said of the letter.

"We have tried numerous times with different city managers, different elected leaders and different avenues, different venues," he said.

The guild has been continually rebuffed or ignored, Day said.

"It's frustrating for us. We want to be able to go out and work in this community without having our judgement and our integrity questioned," he said.

The tipping point came in the last few months, Day added.

While the Ostling trial — where Bainbridge police were found to have violated the Ostling family's civil rights after Bainbridge police shot and killed Doug Ostling, a mentally ill man who had called 911 — was a factor in the guild's decision, it was not the only factor, Day said.

Another important reason, he said, was the departure of veteran officers who no longer wanted to work for Bainbridge Island.

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