Ralph Doty: Waller's job may be in jeopardy

Duluth Police Chief Roger Waller's job might be in jeopardy on the heels of two almost concurrent and likely related developments in City Hall. Rumors have been circulating inside and outside the civic center for nearly two weeks that Waller -- a...

Duluth Police Chief Roger Waller's job might be in jeopardy on the heels of two almost concurrent and likely related developments in City Hall. Rumors have been circulating inside and outside the civic center for nearly two weeks that Waller -- a superb law enforcement officer -- is skating on thin ice.

The first incident occurred several weeks ago when Mayor Herb Bergson proposed that the number of city employees be cut by up to 30 positions -- including 15 police officers and fire fighters -- as a way to balance the city's 2007 budget and pay for huge unfunded health benefits for city employees and retirees.

The public knows very little about Bergson's plan. City councilors requested a meeting with him so they could better understand his proposal, but the mayor insists he can't do that because a session with the council would be viewed as negotiating in public. That's a reason that's only marginally valid.

Bergson also charges that the council's curiosity is a case of meddling in administrative matters. If that's meddling, why did Bergson on Monday ask the council to get involved in the city's parking lot dispute with SMDC Health Systems by approving $8,500 to retain an attorney to handle the city's end of the negotiations?

Reliable sources tell me that after the mayor's cutback announcement, Waller -- who is deeply concerned about public safety and fiercely loyal to his officers -- went to Bergson's office and, to his face, accused the mayor of being more concerned about the homeless than city employees, especially those involved in public safety.


According to several people, the mayor was furious. It was another instance of strained relations between Waller and Bergson -- himself a former police officer and mayor in Superior before he moved to Duluth to run for public office.

The second development was Bergson's appointment of John Hall -- a former Duluth police officer -- as the city's interim chief administrative officer, who replaced interim officer Julio Almanza, who replaced Mark Winson. Hall's appointment might foreshadow trouble for the police chief. It's one of the worst kept secrets in the police department that during many years as police department co-workers, especially when Waller was Hall's boss, the two frequently did not see eye-to-eye. Many of Hall's former colleagues portray him as often overbearing when he was head of the detective bureau and supervisor of the special investigation unit that dealt mostly with drug related crimes.

Mayor Bergson was reportedly so upset about his office encounter with Waller that it may have influenced the mayor's decision to appoint Hall as interim administrator, even though Hall -- who never headed a city department -- was passed over by a search committee named by Bergson to recommend three finalists for the job.

There's speculation that if Bergson believes Waller should be replaced, his decision might be more palatable to city residents if Waller is relieved of his duties based on a "recommendation" to the mayor -- from a former cop, Hall.

Some observers believe Waller could be handed his walking papers before Hall leaves the interim job after a permanent administrator is named. (The new administrator will be the fourth person to hold that post in less than a year.)

All of which leads us to wonder why anyone would want the permanent job of chief administrative officer in an administration where a beleaguered mayor announced 18 months before his term expires that he would not seek reelection.

And isn't it curious that Bergson could not find an interim chief administrative officer who lives in Duluth at least a few months a year? Hall has homes in Solon Springs, Wis., and Lakeland, Fla.

Furthermore, can we expect that Hall -- who announced his retirement in 2004 because of the city's overly generous city employees' and retirees' health plan -- will be objective when he negotiates contracts that must -- absolutely must -- include cutbacks on health care costs? He told the News Tribune in 2004 that "health benefits are the main reason" he chose to take an early retirement. He said he wanted to leave because he saw on the horizon some apparently unfavorable impending changes to retiree health care benefits.


In other words, it was time to get out while the gettin' was good. Will Hall now be able to negotiate reduced health care benefits for active and retired police officers, something that would negatively affect him personally?

(The News Tribune reported Tuesday that to avoid a possible layoff of probationary officers, the police union has proposed a compromise in which new and probationary employees would not be guaranteed free lifetime health benefits. No word yet on whether that idea is acceptable to Bergson.)

Finally, in light of Waller's vocal and vociferous opposition to the probationary police jobs Bergson wants to eliminate, will the police chief be viewed by the mayor as a continuing thorn in his side if he goes ahead with dropping those jobs?

I'm unable to share with you Bergson's reaction to these observations. My telephone message asking him to call me -- given to an aide on Wednesday -- went unheeded before the Thursday deadline for submitting this column to the Budgeteer News.

As this drama continues to unfold, we'll likely know more about the police chief's fate in the next month or so. In the meantime, here's my recommendation to Roger Waller: Watch your back.

Ralph Doty can be contacted at .

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