Independence police overtime probe finds lax oversight and 'miscommunications'
A special counsel has determined that Independence’s decision to renovate its police headquarters, approved without documentation and carried out by police officers who lacked insurance or construction licenses, involved no dishonesty on the part of the police officers who did the work.
But Dan Nelson, a Spencer Fane attorney hired by Independence to look into into how officers incurred significant overtime hours to fix up police headquarters, said the project’s failures in communication and oversight were “unacceptable.”
“Police did not receive express permission to use police labor or overtime. But the city did not ask questions or follow up when told that renovations would be occurring at the police department and authorizing it,” Nelson said at a briefing Tuesday at the Independence Utility Center.
“In conclusion, there were loose oral permissions here. And this investigation concludes that loose oral permissions — sought or given — are unacceptable for construction projects for a city the size of Independence.”
Independence hired Nelson, a former federal and Jackson County prosecutor, as special counsel in February after a whistleblower tipped off top city officials about police officer Kevin Nightingale tallying close to 3,000 hours of overtime doing construction work for the city. The overtime amount paid to Nightingale — about $160,000 — atop his regular salary made him the highest paid city employee, with compensation of $240,000. Other police employees worked on the headquarters project, too.
In all, it cost Independence close to $400,000 to renovate its police headquarters, a job mostly focused on rebuilding the jail in the basement of the building. Labor and materials did not go through the ordinarily required bidding process.
Nelson said he believed taxpayers received “strong value” for the work because hiring commercial contractors motivated by profit and architects and engineers who charge by the hour would likely have cost more.
Nelson said he found no evidence of dishonesty by police laborers and, while the investigation could not definitively verify all the hours worked, no evidence of fraudulent timekeeping surfaced.
“We found no evidence that police worked during their shift hours on the project,” Nelson said. “Annual reviews and interviews supported that the police laborers continued to successfully do their police work during the project.”
But the city still carries significant risk in having renovated the jail the way it did. If an injury or a death occurs at the jail — not infrequent occurrences at facilities that detain people — the use of unlicensed and uninsured labor by police employees could expose the city to legal liability.
And while the city saved money by using police labor on the jail project — a necessary undertaking, the investigation found — the Independence Police Department went over budget last year by $253,006, in part because of the renovation.
The jail project wasn’t the first time Independence has used uninsured police workers operating without licenses or contracts to do renovation projects. The investigation found the practice goes back more than two decades.
‘I expect more from our city’
Independence Mayor Rory Rowland said he was “beyond disappointed” by the circumstances surrounding the jail project.
“And I feel the outrage of the citizens,” Rowland said. “When I walked door to door I heard this message many times. They were very upset that this occurred in our city. And as a resident myself, I share their concerns, and I expect more from our city.”
Rowland did not directly answer questions about whether anyone should be held accountable, or if he agreed with the special counsel’s conclusion that taxpayers received value for the jail renovations. He said the Independence City Council received Nelson’s report the night before and hadn’t had time to fully view it or make recommendations.
“I ran to change the culture of this city. Did I know there were problems? Absolutely. Was I aware of it? Yes. Did I want to see a change? No question,” Rowland said. “Will we work hard to make that happen? Yes, we will.”
Mike Steinmeyer, an Independence City Council member, said the police overtime issue came up among voters when he ran as a write-in candidate for mayor earlier this year.
“And for the majority, that conversation was always: Police should do police work,” Steinmeyer said. “And these types of projects should be done by obviously skilled labor and the trades and let them have their opportunity to work in the city as well.”
He said the city carried out the jail project in ways small businesses in Independence could not. Small businesses would have to pull permits, submit to inspections and hire contractors with licenses, bonds and insurance.
“So it's kind of that we have this, you know, this practice here, it’s okay, but don't you do it out here,” Steinmeyer said. “And that's a bad signal to send to your business community, too.”
The special counsel investigation resulted in several recommendations.
For one, it discouraged in-house construction projects. And if the city decides to pursue such projects, it should go through the city’s municipal services, procurement and finance divisions as well as the city manager’s office.
It also recommended that the Independence Police Department modernize its overtime tracking system, which currently relies on paper vouchers that don’t make their way to the city’s payroll division. The result, the investigation found, is a cumbersome system that relies on an honor system for reporting and oversight of police overtime.
It also said the city should explore a policy governing police overtime, such as limits on how many hours can be worked, whether overtime can be reported when personal leave has been used and whether time spent commuting to work and taking breaks can be included in overtime.
City policies currently do not ban submitting compensatory time, which is paid at time-and-a-half, at the same time as working overtime, also paid at time-and-a-half. Nelson referred to the practice as “triple dipping.”
Whether the city adopts such policies remains up to the Independence City Council. Public employee and trade unions have political clout in Independence, and workplace policies often follow collective bargaining agreements between the city’s management and its employees.
“This city is a very union-friendly city and always has been,” Steinmeyer said. “And the contracts, I've always asked questions about the contracts. This is negotiated (into the contract). So what may not seem reasonable is in their contract and is something that they've negotiated in (and) the city’s agreed to. So should that continue? That's going to be between labor and the city.”
Based at St. Louis Public Radio, Steve Vockrodt is the Midwest Newsroom’s investigative editor. Follow him on Twitter: @SteveVockrodt
The Midwest Newsroom is an investigative journalism collaboration including St. Louis Public Radio, KCUR, Iowa Public Radio, Nebraska Public Media and NPR.