The following letter was a late inclusion into Wednesday night’s Mammoth Lakes Town Council agenda packet:
Hello TOML Town Council:
There is an editorial in the April 3 issue of The Sheet that makes our Town Manager and Police Chief appear absolutely incompetent, unprofessional and incapable of performing their jobs. Please, please ask Andy Morris, our TOML lawyer, to begin an independent inquiry into the incident ASAP. The longer this toxic topic circulates unaddressed, the worse it will become. Thank you, Sharon Clark
The Mammoth Lakes Town Council most certainly made no mention of or allusion to The Sheet’s reporting from last week.
But the Mammoth Lakes Police Department (MLPD), Police Chief Al Davis and Town Manager Dan Holler were most certainly front-and-center at Council on Wednesday.
And one can make an argument that this week’s sequel is as jaw-dropping as last week’s original feature.
This week’s grenade was tossed during MLPD Lieutenant Eric Hugelman’s retirement ceremony.
Which started with Chief Davis going through a perfunctory outline of Hugelman’s career: starting as a reserve officer in 1989, being sent to the police academy in 1991, becoming a sergeant in 2006 and a lieutenant in 2017. Along the way enjoying stints as a school resource officer as well as a detective.
Police Chief Al Davis remarked that he would not have been as successful here as Chief without the aid of both Hugelman and retired Sgt. Marc Moscowitz.
Sure sounds like a nice endorsement of Hugelman – the same guy who was deemed good enough to send to a Police Chief training less than two years ago.
When it was Hugelman’s turn to speak, he said it has been an “honor and a privilege” to serve the Mammoth community.
And then his turn took a left turn. Without a blinker.
“As for my retirement,” he said, “This is not something that was my choice. The decision was made for me.”
Let me interrupt here to say that I texted Hugelman last week upon hearing of his impending retirement to ask him if he had retired of his own accord or was pressured to do so?
He did not answer.
I texted him the following question after his retirement ceremony: If they offered to rescind and keep you on, would you stay?
His reply: Yes.
After Hugelman made the statement about his retirement, you would think that a Councilmember might become curious and ask a question or two.
Instead, Mayor Bill Sauser gave a thank you for your service/asset to the community/known you a long time speech.
This was followed by similar bromides from Mayor Pro-Milquetoast Lynda Salcido.
The other three Councilmembers said nothing.
And then it was onto the next agenda item.
But I couldn’t move on, because the implications of what Hugelman attested to are far-reaching.
Holler told the paper last week that with Hugelman’s retirement, the Town planned not to fill the Lieutenant position and instead go with a Chief and four sergeants.
If Hugelman’s retirement was voluntary, you figure Holler could justify a switch, saying “Eric retired, so I’m just going to work around it based upon the staff I have.”
But if he’s literally forcing a retirement and then changing the police staffing structure, what Holler is doing is making policy. And that is not his job. That is Council’s job.
It connotes willful intent on Mr. Holler’s part to circumvent his employers.
It’s changing a management structure and eliminating a position that Holler and Davis argued for in 2017, without explaining to Council or the public why such a change would be a good idea.
It clearly signals to anyone in the Town’s employ that he/she would be insane to accept an at-will position at the Town of Mammoth Lakes with Machete Dan and Chainsaw Al in charge.
In fact, the only people who’ve been let go since the pandemic started were both at-will employees: Hugelman and Wildlife Specialist Steve Searles.
Who happen to be pretty good friends.
Not too long ago, it was a pretty common sight to see the two sharing a meal at the Breakfast Club.
But let’s switch gears here, because The Sheet met with Police Chief Al Davis on Tuesday afternoon. I give him credit for meeting with someone who had called for his ouster four days previously.
The first thing we talked about was a previous case (2016) where the Mammoth Lakes Police Department offered a settlement to a man it had falsely arrested.
The man’s name: Bret Meier.
Two officers arrested Meier on an outstanding warrant. The warrant was for a man named William Shade.
Meier insisted repeatedly that he was not William Shade.
Meier is about 6” taller than Shade, by the way.
No one wanted to hear it.
He was booked into the Bridgeport Jail anyway.
A few weeks later he accepted a $1,500 payment for the inconvenience of a night’s stay at the Bridgeport Hilton.
After the incident, Chief Davis said there were no hard feelings between Mr. Meier and the department.
The Sheet then asked Davis about a statement his Records Supervisor Krystle Stewart posted online:
“Cash in lieu of lawsuit isn’t so uncommon. Check out Long Beach that just did the same in the last month. It’s all business.”
Sheet: Is it all business?
Davis: It is business.
Sheet: If you could do it all over again, would you have handled the Thompson case any differently?
Davis: I don’t see why I would change this policy/procedure. It is common practice amongst police agencies.
Ultimately, it is a Dan Holler decision and he agreed with both [proposed payments].
The Sheet then asked Davis about Hugelman’s retirement because we had received a tip from a local law enforcement officer that it was not voluntary.
Davis said the retirement was voluntary.
But also said that Hugelman had been approached the summer before with a retirement option.
And said that Dan Holler had called him [Hugelman] into his office about three weeks ago.
The implication being that Davis was out of the loop and didn’t know much about it.
“Eric was doing a good job,” said Davis. “It was not a performance issue. And he handled the Stephanie Thompson thing well from what I know.”
Davis penned a statement on the Mammoth Lakes Police Department Facebook page regarding the Thompson incident and claimed public sentiment showed 75% support for the MLPD in how it handled the case.
The start of his statement reads, “The Sheet did not review any police reports, incident information or bodycam footage prior to printing an article on this incident. The Sheet requested those materials, and they were being collected at that time. Not all reports were completed at the time of request. There are a number of inaccurate statements in the article.”
He does not explain why he did not return any phone calls that week.
He does not explain why the MLPD could not fulfill requests for basic reports within 72 hours.
In his statement, I could not find substantial points of difference between his version of events and what appeared in the paper last week.
Let’s put this way. The Sheet doesn’t operate on MLPD time, and the MLPD certainly doesn’t operate on newspaper deadline time. But I’m not gonna kill a story just because you’re trying to run out the clock.
I thought Davis made some excellent points when he talked about how Covid has “taken relationships backward” in the community between law enforcement and the public “because we’re not visible at events [in the community].”
Further, he said, uniform plus mask
makes officers look scarier and creates a sense of foreboding.
One of the rather telling parts of our conversation was when Chief Davis asked whether or not I had spoken to Steve Searles.
He said that Searles had been essentially giving him the evil eye and had it out for him ever since the Town and Searles had parted ways last summer over a contract disagreement.
And that’s when it kind of clicked in for me.
“So … it must have really irritated you that Steve and Eric remained friends. Did it make you feel that Eric was somehow disloyal and could no longer be trusted?”
Davis thought this was a reach and said it did not affect his working relationship with Hugelman.
Breaking news on a Thursday evening. Just received the following:
“The [Mammoth] Town Council has directed the Town Attorney to engage an outside expert to conduct an independent investigation and review of the Thompson incident. The Town is taking the incident, process, response and all related actions very seriously, and Town staff will cooperate fully with the investigation and review.”
In terms of serendipity, I vaguely recalled the “Chainsaw Al” moniker from my youth but had to go do some research to figure out where it came from.
“Chainsaw Al” was a guy by the name of Al Dunlap who was a corporate turnaround guy whose heyday was in the ‘90s.
His principal strategy: Slash and burn. Improve the bottom line via mass layoffs and then sell the company.
According to his wikipedia entry, in one interview, “Dunlap freely admitted to possessing many of the traits of a psychopath, but considered them positive traits such as leadership and decisiveness.”
And from his New York Times obituary, a quote from his autobiography:
“The Al Dunlaps of the world would not be hired if corporate people did their jobs,” he wrote. “But because some executives can’t make decisions or consistently make the wrong decisions, their incompetence virtually screams out for an Al Dunlap.”
Final thoughts: The Town is anticipating a 20% increase in revenue for fiscal year 2021-2022 so it’s hard to believe Hugelman was axed for financial considerations.
And Mammoth’s Council has its first “Strategic” workshop planned for this Friday, April 9. Maybe that’s why there was such a rush to eliminate Hugelman – I mean, strategy can muck things up!