Virginia, Minn.: The police chief who can't be canned?

  • Article by: LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2012 - 9:35 PM

Employees and bosses in Virginia, Minn., insist Police Chief Dana Waldron is a bully, but attempts to fire him have failed for more than a year.

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Virginia, Minn., Police Chief Dana Waldron talked with family members while testifying in his defense during a three-day Police Civil Service Commission trial at City Hall in August.

Photo: Mark Sauer , Mesabi Daily News

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VIRGINIA, MINN. - Dana Waldron says he wants to remain chief of police in this Iron Range town, even though his officers have said they don't want to work for him, and city leaders have been trying for more than a year to fire him.

Subordinates and superiors alike say the 32-year Virginia police officer, who has been chief for the past nine years, is vindictive and has an anger problem that showed itself when he yelled the "F-word" at both a boss and a fellow department head.

"When someone who is carrying a gun walks in and starts swearing and yelling at you, it makes you nervous," said Mayor Steve Peterson, who, with the City Council, is trying to fire Waldron but so far hasn't pulled it off because civil service rules and procedures have protected the chief. "He forgets he's a subordinate. He needs to attend counseling sessions and look at why he's angry."

Waldron, 57, fresh from a three-day suspension last month for allegedly violating city policy in a dispute with one of his detectives over how many officers could attend a meeting, says he's not ready to retire.

"I want to move ahead in a positive manner," said Waldron, who last summer turned down an opportunity to retire with $60,000 in severance pay and 80 percent of his health insurance premiums paid by the city. "I want to show I can do my job professionally. I see where we need to repair relationships."

Gregg Corwin, a labor attorney who defended Waldron against the long-running attempt to fire him, didn't mince words in describing those who have it in for him. Corwin said Waldron's officers "are like a bunch of spoiled children" who don't respect the chief's authority.

"The tail was trying to wag the dog," Corwin said. "They thought they could run the department better." He says his client is "a straight arrow who calls it the way he sees it and he rubbed people the wrong way."

A 'no-confidence' vote

The City Council put Waldron on paid leave and launched an investigation more than a year ago, after all of the city's 16 licensed officers voted for a measure expressing "no confidence" in the chief's ability to lead the department.

The council cited 16 alleged acts of misconduct by Waldron, which were considered last summer by the city's Police Civil Service Commission, a body that had the power to discipline or terminate him. The allegations included abuse of authority, insubordination, inefficiency and failure to carry out his duties.

The first 20 witnesses testified against Waldron, saying that he created a hostile work environment through tongue-lashings and intimidation.

In addition, one officer testified that Waldron let them work with bulletproof vests that had expired. Another testified that Waldron watched from across a street as a female officer was pulled and jostled by a crowd of hostile bar patrons who had spilled out onto a sidewalk.

"He didn't go over to help," Lt. Brian Bisping said in an interview. "Not backing up your fellow officers is a pretty egregious thing." He said that failure to help led some officers to stop respecting Waldron.

"I don't think there's enough time in the world to mend the fences he's burned," Bisping said.

Waldron declined to discuss specific allegations brought up during the hearing.

Corwin, the chief's attorney, suggested during the hearing that the officer told a false story about Waldron's failing to help because Waldron had made negative remarks about the officer in a performance review.

Corwin also argued to commissioners that the City Council and city administrators are trying to fire Waldron because he accused them of misusing excess funds from a police pension account.

In a recent interview, the mayor denied having such motives and said Waldron's accusation was wrong. "Accountants made clear the excess pension was city funds," Peterson said.

Counseling prescribed

On Aug. 31, the commission ordered Waldron reinstated with back pay. It found that while Waldron was guilty of four of the allegations against him, those four did not warrant firing him.

The commission recommended, however, that Waldron get anger-management counseling, improve his communication with employees and recognize that the City Council sets policy, not him.

Waldron returned to run a department that didn't want him, working for bosses who didn't want him. Meanwhile, the City Council voted to abolish the Police Civil Service Commission, removing one of the obstacles that had blocked them from firing the chief.

The council has since renewed those efforts. On Jan. 24, one day short of a year since Waldron was put on leave for the investigation into his alleged misconduct, the council suspended him for three days without pay as the result of an investigation into new claims by a police officer and a detective who said Waldron harassed them and retaliated against them.

The mayor said the suspension was part of a progression of discipline necessary before someone can be fired.

"He's proven he doesn't want to work with us," Peterson said. "Termination will at some point be an option if he continues down this path."

Larry Oakes • 612-269-0504

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