Personnel rift cost Bellevue $300,000 - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, January 15, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:40 am
Personnel rift cost Bellevue $300,000
Nov. 28, 2007: Bellevue Police Chief John Stacey fires Officer Christopher Parent after an internal investigation determined the 26-year veteran had not maintained a “high level of physical, mental and emotional conditioning.”

Jan. 14, 2008: Bellevue Civil Service Commission upholds firing. Parent appeals.

March 17, 2009: Nebraska Court of Appeals reverses firing.

June 25, 2009: Bellevue is ordered to reinstate Parent.

July 27, 2009: Parent reports for duty but is placed on indefinite paid administrative leave.

May 7, 2010: Nebraska Crime Commission denies Bellevue's bid to revoke Parent's law enforcement certification.

Feb. 15, 2011: City hires California attorney to bring dispute to a close.

June 5, 2011: City determines Parent has about 28 weeks of unused vacation and sick time.

Jan. 10: Parent formally retires when his sick leave and vacation benefits expire.
Sources: World-Herald archives, City of Bellevue

Officer Christopher Parent is ready to move on from the Bellevue Police Department.

And the City of Bellevue is eager to move past Parent.

It's been four years and three months since Chief John Stacey fired Parent for allegedly being unfit for duty.

It's been 30 months since the Nebraska Supreme Court ordered Parent's reinstatement.

It's been 29 months since the city placed Parent on indefinite administrative paid leave.

The city has spent more than $300,000 on the case:

A total of $50,000 in legal fees.

More than $103,000 in back pay ordered by the courts.

And about $170,000 in salary and benefits since then — without Parent working a single day.

"The city has paid me a salary for the last four years to stay at home," Parent said in a recent interview. "The last four years have just been wasted. Instead, I've sat at home in my recliner and watched 'Frasier.' "

Now, both sides are ready to end the protracted personnel squabble.

Tuesday marked Parent's last day on the city payroll. At 55, with more than the required 25 years on the job, he met the criteria to retire.

"I'm glad it's done," said Finance Director Rich Severson. "Lessons learned."

Calculating Parent's benefits turned into a nightmare for payroll clerks, Severson said. While Parent remained on paid leave, he continued to accrue vacation and sick-leave benefits.

He even received stipends for a uniform allowance.

"This is awful," Severson said. "Lots of administration time was spent working on his payroll. We've had lawyers in the middle of the negotiations, and them telling us what the final decision is. ... Five years of this mess."

Parent was fired for violating part of a department policy requiring officers to maintain a high level of physical conditioning through regular exercise and proper diet. A half-dozen officers testified that an overweight Parent had difficulty during an August 2007 combat shooting exercise that required officers to move around obstacles, kneel and shoot.

The officers testified Parent could not safely defend himself, other officers or the public.

Many decisions related to the case were made by Stacey and former City Administrator Gary Troutman, who now works in human resources for the Metropolitan Utilities District. Neither returned messages seeking comment.

Longtime Councilman Dave Sanborn defended the firing and said the courts put the city in a precarious spot. Placing Parent on administrative leave seemed the best solution until he could provide medical clearance to return to work, Sanborn said.

At the time Parent was fired, Bellevue did not have appropriate employment procedures in place, said City Councilwoman Carol Blood. As a result, Parent's firing lacked a sufficient "paper trail" to justify the city's action, said Blood, who has pushed for improvements.

Current City Administrator Dan Berlowitz has begun revising and updating employment policies. Last year the city's law firm — Adams & Sullivan — hired an attorney with expertise in employment law.

The city also has begun to implement a performance appraisal system for all employees.

"We cannot fix mistakes of the past. A lot of these issues and unnecessary legal fees can be avoided with sound H.R. policies," Blood said. "That is not to say the City of Bellevue did anything wrong. But I think there's a consensus that things could have been handled differently. I think more common sense is now being used."

Berlowitz, who began work in May, vowed that Bellevue wouldn't handle any future employment cases the way it did with Parent, keeping someone on paid leave for years.

"By the time I arrived, this (case) was already in the fourth quarter," Berlowitz said. "The train was already out of the station. Under my watch, there will be a much different approach."

Berlowitz said the city's administrative leave policy will be revised this year. He said such leave should mainly be used for employees facing allegations of possible wrongdoing or misconduct.

Parent had worked for years as a detective. He specialized in computer forensics and investigated a number of child pornography cases. His skills landed him a spot on the FBI's cybercrimes task force. In 2005 he was honored as a Sarpy County Crime Stoppers officer of the year. Also in 2005 his driver's license listed him as 5-foot-9 and 300 pounds.

Parent said he believes his termination and prolonged paid leave came about because "John Stacey has just got some personal issue with me."

After the courts reinstated Parent in July 2009, he reported for duty, only to be sent home.

"Naively, I went down there thinking I am going to be back," Parent said. "When the television cameras had already showed up, I was just humiliated. (Then) Lt. Mark Elbert just walked me through the hall and into the garage and sent me home."

Parent said the city did not offer him an alternative work assignment or desk duty.

By contrast, Stacey's predecessor, the late Police Chief Hines Smith, created a new civilian position in 2003 to accommodate former Officer Bruce Scharton, who had a serious health problem.

"They have a light-duty policy," Parent said. "I could have done busy work or processed police reports (when I was ordered reinstated). In my case, the police administration did not want me in that building. ...

"But I could have done something. Instead, I get to watch 'Frasier' for four years at $65,000."

While on paid leave, Parent said, he continued to gain weight. He weighed 425 pounds in December 2010, before undergoing bariatric surgery last February.

In June, the city notified Parent he would be removed from the payroll unless he could provide a return-to-work certificate.

He didn't return, and the city calculated it would take seven months for his vacation, holiday and sick-leave benefits to run out. That ran through last Tuesday.

While Parent sat in his recliner, he was collecting the same benefits as a working officer.

He collected money for floating holidays, paid birthdays, regular holidays, uniforms and longevity.

During the past four-plus years, Parent also received about six weeks of annual vacation and three weeks of annual sick leave.

"It's hard to believe something like this will ever happen again," Blood said. "When you look at the Chris Parent situation, the safety net needs to be better. All Bellevue can ever do is learn from our lessons of the past and make Bellevue city government better."

These days, Parent is focused on his health.

He now weighs 240 pounds, he said proudly.

"I had to buy all new gym shorts and sweatsuits," he said. "I would still like to lose another 50 pounds."

He said he is still recuperating from last year's surgery, planning to seek another job after fully recovering, which he estimated might take several more months.

After Parent receives his final city paycheck later this month, he can look forward to collecting his city pension.

For the typical officer with his salary and experience, that would be $27,500 a year.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1056, john.ferak@owh.com

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