Moab City Recorder Rachel Stenta, left, swore in Moab City Police Department officers Richard Allred and Brent Jones at the city council's meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 10. After a difficult 2016, Moab City Police Sgt. Bret Edge said that his department has made significant internal changes to improve its operations going forward. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

City officials are putting more distance between themselves and a sometimes-rocky 2016, but the issues that arose last year during former Moab City Manager Rebecca Davidson’s administration aren’t quite out of their rear-view mirror yet.

The Moab City Council voted 4-1 on Tuesday, Jan. 10, to approve a purchasing exception for outside legal services from the Salt Lake City firm of Parr Brown Gee & Loveless for just under $65,482. Council member Heila Ershadi voted against the majority.

The city conducted several internal affairs investigations last year, and according to a memo from Moab City Recorder Rachel Stenta, it hired outside counsel to reduce the city’s future liability and risk exposure.

The firm’s billing statement offers no specific details about the scope of its services because they involve personnel-related matters. For similar reasons, Stenta did not include any particulars in the council’s public packet because they are classified as “Protected” under Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), she said in a memo to the council.

However, city officials have confirmed that the city launched internal affairs investigations within the Moab City Police Department; the city previously paid Parr Brown nearly $34,000 to investigate related matters.

The firm also conducted a review last year of unspecified “internal issues” that appear to involve Davidson, whose three-year contract was terminated in September 2016 “without cause,” or for reasons that are not related to misconduct.

Interim Moab City Manager David Everitt said he thinks the city had an “extraordinary year” when it came to the need for outside legal services in 2016. But he would hope that similar needs won’t arise in the years to come, he said.

Although she voted to approve the purchasing exception, Moab City Council member Rani Derasary said it can be hard to determine the merits of the city’s investment in such cases.

“I think we all probably feel some pressure about how you budget for expenses like this, and when you pay a firm with higher rates, you’re probably getting some kind of benefit, but how do you gauge that?” she said. “So I guess one of the things I just struggle with, with stuff like this … is how to justify high fees and reassure ourselves these aren’t going to keep coming.”

Ershadi moved to table further consideration of the purchasing exception, but her motion died when no one seconded it.

She said she didn’t have enough time to review the matter, and she questioned whether other council members understood what they’re voting to approve.

“I agree that paying invoices is a good thing to do – we don’t want to get behind on our bills,” Ershadi said. “However, I like to know what I’m paying for, especially when it’s $65,000.”

Council members Tawny Knuteson-Boyd and Kalen Jones said the city has a responsibility to pay the firm for previously contracted work.

“They’ve provided the service, and our obligation is to pay our bill … and to reevaluate what we will do with (it) or not is to hold them hostage,” Knuteson-Boyd said.

“I think we should evaluate our legal services going forward,” Jones said. “But these are legal services we’ve already bought.”

According to Stenta’s memo, total costs for internal affairs reviews during the second half of 2016 came to more than $35,876. In addition, Parr Brown billed the city more than $25,527 for work it performed when the city placed Davidson on paid administrative leave in September 2016, along with just under $7,962 on GRAMA-related services, among other costs.

The firm says it offered the city an “overall courtesy discount” of $6,607.85.

Interim manager addresses concerns about IA investigations

Everitt said he understands the sense of exasperation that some officials and residents may share regarding the pace of the months-long investigations into the police department, as well as the lack of information that’s available to the public.

“I know there’s frustration at the city council level; there certainly is some frustration even at the administrative level, and certainly within the community, around the notion that we don’t know what these timeframes are and we don’t know what’s going on,” he told local residents during a Grand County League of Women Voters meeting on Monday, Jan. 9. “And I want you to know: It’s not that we know much more about what’s going on with these investigations, frankly.”

A person who asked to remain anonymous told the Moab Sun News in October 2016 that several officers were reportedly put on administrative leave last year, or placed on “corrective action plans.” The police department has also faced allegations of misconduct involving two former officers accused of drinking alcohol with minors at an underage party.

Everitt said that city officials can’t speak substantively about those allegations or other details for the time being in order to protect the people under investigation. In many cases, he noted, investigations will ultimately exonerate suspects of any allegations of misconduct or criminal wrongdoing.

“Essentially, it’s a distillation of the concept that you’re innocent until proven guilty,” he said.

“Of course, we all hear things and rumors are out there, and I totally get that,” he added. “But in terms of what the city government should be saying out loud to people in a public setting, it is pretty limited until allegations are sustained and that process is worked through.”

In cases like these, Everitt said the process is often long and complicated because internal affairs investigations into whether an officer violated city policy can trigger a separate state-level investigation if allegations of criminal wrongdoing come to light.

Obviously, he said, the city can’t investigate its own officers as a separate criminal investigation continues, so the internal affairs investigation was essentially put on hold. However, Everitt said he’s heard third-hand that the state’s criminal investigation has ended, and that the internal affairs investigation is resuming.

He said he has no knowledge that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is actively looking into any related matters.

“Nobody from the FBI ever contacted the city to say there’s an FBI investigation happening,” he said. “As far as I know … I heard again third-hand that (the FBI) looked into it, decided that it wasn’t something that rose to the level of their needing to do anything, and so nothing was ever pursued at that point.”

On the upside, he noted that staffing levels within the department have bounced back under Interim Moab City Police Chief Steve Ross, who replaced former Chief Mike Navarre last fall.

At one point last year, Everitt said, the department was down from 16 sworn officers to 10 or 11, but it currently has just one remaining vacancy.

“As the old adage goes, now is not the time to speed in Moab,” he said.

Moab City Police Sgt. Bret Edge acknowledged that 2016 was a difficult year for the department.

“However, we’ve made several internal changes that will allow us to reduce the possibility of similar issues appearing in the future,” he said.

After the city conducted a salary survey and determined that new police officers were paid, on average, more than 20 percent less than officers in other similar municipalities, the department’s base wage was increased to $19.85 per hour. That’s an increase of more than $3 per hour from the previous starting wage.

Edge said that by paying higher wages and offering an “excellent” benefit program, the department will be able to recruit and retain high-quality police officers who are committed to serving the community with respect and integrity.

The department also revamped its hiring and selection procedures, and the process now includes a polygraph test and intensive psychological examinations. New and lateral recruits must also undergo physical training assessments, oral board interviews, written exercises and comprehensive background investigations, Edge said.

Last but not least, Edge said the department received a significant increase in its training budget, which has allowed it to provide more training opportunities for its officers.

“We will continue to invest in our officers and our community by providing diverse training opportunities for our staff,” he said.

Council splits 4-1 on vote to pay firm that conducted internal affairs reviews