After unleashing a furor by his assertion that hundreds of local young people were on heroin, Police Chief Gary Smith is departing for a job in Kansas.
Five months after shocking Northfield residents with the assertion that hundreds of local young people were on heroin, Police Chief Gary Smith is moving on.
Smith said Friday he is resigning to take the top police job in Emporia, Kan. -- a move he said is unrelated to the furor after a July 3 news conference in Northfield at which he said 150 to 250 young people were using heroin or a related narcotic.
The assertion drew criticism from residents who questioned its accuracy and objected to the way it was broadcast. Within two weeks of his news conference, Smith abruptly started a medical leave of absence and has never returned.
Officials in the Northfield School District were dismayed at what Superintendent Chris Richardson called a "considerable difference" between Smith's numbers and the district's data on student drug use, which showed that during the 2006-07 school year, 15 students who were using heroin or oxycodone were referred for treatment.
Other city leaders and residents thought Smith drew unnecessary negative attention to Northfield. As City Council member Scott Davis put it recently, "I think we could have gotten the same message out in a more tactful manner."
The chief said recently he wouldn't do anything differently and argued he was taking a stand for his community. "Somebody had to do it. It was my turn, so I was the lightning rod," he said.
But he rejected the idea he is being run out of town. "This was a family decision we made some time ago," said Smith, who said he submitted his application for the Emporia job in August. "Nobody asked me to leave."
Smith's departure comes at a pivotal time for Northfield, where city politics and controversies have been the talk of the town for months. A report on an independent investigation of city business, ordered by the City Council this fall, is expected at the council's Dec. 17 meeting.
Just before going on his medical leave, Smith turned over a preliminary investigation of City Administrator Al Roder to the Rice County attorney. The ongoing investigation, for unspecified acts, has since been turned over to the Goodhue County Sheriff's Office. Details have never been made public.
In addition, Mayor Lee Lansing came under fire for promoting his family's interests at City Hall, including property owned by his son, David, where the city has considered locating a municipal liquor store. In October, the Lansings sued the city, Roder and three council members for open-meeting and public-records law violations. The mayor has since removed himself as a plaintiff in the suit.
Though Smith's July news conference seemed to mark the start of a season of discord in Northfield, observers said many of the problems had been building well beforehand.
"All of this stuff was kind of like a perfect storm, but it had been festering for a while," said Griff Wigley, who writes for a popular local blog.
Still, said Davis, the circumstances under which Smith went on leave were "unfortunate."
"I think because of that, it gave a faction of town the perspective that it would be challenging for Gary to come back and have the same level of authority or level of respect."
Looking back, Northfield leaders expressed mixed feelings about the heroin debate.
On the one hand, the chief's "sensational statistics" fixed the attention of the community on heroin, deflecting attention from other drug issues, said Joel Leer, principal of Northfield High School. "But then we kind of said, 'Well, the attention is out there. We're under more scrutiny than ever before, so let's use that attention to our advantage to help kids.'"
In the wake of the news conference, the school district helped organize community events called "After the Headlines," including an Oct. 30 workshop on drug awareness.
The district also called in drug-sniffing dogs to search the high school this fall. The building came up clean, Richardson said. And the district has doubled its chemical dependency counselor's hours from one day a week to two -- a move planned before July, Leer said.
Smith said his new position is a step up for him: Emporia's Police Department is twice the size of Northfield's, and the Kansas college town has about 8,000 more residents than Northfield's 18,000. He also said his new department knows about the heroin news conference, his health issues and the investigation of Roder. Smith said he has undergone three surgeries this fall, two for sleep apnea and one to relieve numbness in his hands.
"I was very upfront with them," he said.
Still, he said, "I'm going to work that much harder to gain trust" in Emporia.
Smith starts his new job Jan. 7. Since coming to Northfield in 1999, he said he had applied for half a dozen police chief jobs, including positions in Burnsville, Lakeville, Cottage Grove and Yakima, Wash.
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016