Fairbanks City Council members question mayor’s screening process for next police chief

Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly recalls the history of Pioneer Park, once known as Alaskaland, as he speaks from the deck of the historical S.S. Nenana sternwheeler steamboat at the annual Independence Day Celebration at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks on July 4, 2017.
Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly speaks from the deck of the historic S.S. Nenana steamboat at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks on July 4, 2017. (Photo by Mary M. Rall/U.S. Army Alaska Public Affairs)

There’s concern about the process that Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly used to review applicants vying to be the city’s next police chief. At a city council meeting this week, some public comments were critical of a process that screened out applicants prior to the interview stage.

Mayor Matherly described one step in the process, where Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer and consultant Greg Russell screened applications.

“They reviewed the 18 applications we got,” Matherly said. “We got 18 of them, and they reviewed every resume for minimum and preferred experience and qualifications.”

Matherly said Mercer and Russell selected 10 candidates to be interviewed by a local review committee. The panel ultimately selected 5 finalists for participation in a public forum scheduled for tonight.

Although the council was sent a memo about the process on Jan. 25, council member Valerie Therrien took issue with the mayor’s lack of  transparency about the screening process.

“You never advised us that there would be two people that would be deselecting individuals to be interviewed by the committee,” she said.

Therrien said the situation is especially concerning because two local candidates were among those screened out prior to the interview stage. Fellow council member June Rogers said she’s received a lot of public feedback about the issue.

“So many letters and calls from people who are concerned,” she said. “It doesn’t bode well for us.”

Rogers joined Therrien in suggesting a pause in the hiring process. Council members Aaron Gibson and Jim Clark underscored that both the mayor and council have roles to play.

“He has that right to choose who he wants for police chief,” Clark said. “And we have, as a council, the right to either agree with him or send him back to the drawing board.”

The finalists for the police chief job include two internal applicants: acting City Police Chief Rick Sweet and Acting Deputy Chief Ron Dupee. The other three finalists are from Outside: Koula Black is a major with the Mocksville Police Department in North Carolina, Derek Bos is Brush, Colorado’s police chief and Todd Richardson is a sheriff’s deputy in Beaver County, Utah.

The city’s diversity council is hosting tonight’s public forum for the five finalists. City spokeswoman Teal Soden says it will be similar to the last time the city hired a police chief.

“This is the way for the applicants to introduce themselves to the community, and for the community to hear them answer a few questions provided by the Fairbanks Diversity Council,” Soden said.

All five candidates will answer two questions sent to them yesterday, followed by additional questions not provided in advance. Soden says the questions were written by the diversity council.

“Some of the questions are specifically about diversity, and so we thought that they would be the best ones to think about what they would like to see in a police chief,” Soden said. “And also the Fairbanks Diversity Council covers many sectors of our community, and we wanted them to participate as well.”

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