BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (WOOD) — Two Battle Creek Police Department leaders who were put on paid administrative leave are suing the city and several high-ranking city leaders. They say they were the targets of a vendetta from the mayor and that the suspension ruined their careers.
Deputy Chief Jim Saylor and Inspector Maria Alonso of the BCPD’s Office of Professional Conduct were placed on paid leave March 7 amid allegations they had an inappropriate relationship and lied about it.
The pair filed a federal lawsuit Friday against the City of Battle Creek, Mayor David Walters, Interim City Mangaer Susan Bedsole and Interim Police Chief Jim Blocker.
According to court documents outlining the suit, Saylor and Alonso allege their careers were “effectively ended” when the city placed them on leave and announced the suspension to the media. They also say the defendants “painted a false and defamatory public image” of them.
Inside woodtv.com: Read the full lawsuit (pdf)
The suit claims Mayor Walters holds a grudge against Alonso and Saylor because they recommended that his son, Officer Derek Walters, be fired in 2013 after an internal investigation that Alonso conducted and Saylor participated in found he had lied to a superior officer to avoid performing a required task.
The suit said that though Alonso and Saylor were previously married to other people, they were both divorced by the time they started a romantic relationship in January. The suit said former BCPD Chief Jackie Hampton told the pair it was OK for them to engage in a relationship because “Alonso did not report directly to Saylor.”
“Chief Hampton advised Alonso and Saylor that he was happy for his two colleagues and that no City or departmental problems would arise if Alonso was not Saylor’s direct report,” the suit reads in part.
The suit also said Hampton told former City Manager Ken Tsuchiyama about the relationship, and that Tsuchiyama also said it was OK because Alonso did not report to Saylor.
When Hampton retired at the end of January, the suit says, Tsuchiyama told Saylor he would be appointed interim chief. At the time, he said, Tsuchiyama told Saylor about “a threat made by Mayor Walters.”
“Tsuchiyama told Saylor that if he applied for the permanent Chief position, ‘Mayor Walters and others on the City Commission would disparage Saylor and Alonso by going to the media,'” the suit says.
Saylor, Tsuchiyama and Battle Creek Relations Director Russ Claggett met following Hampton’s retirement to discuss the situation regarding Saylor and Alonso’s relationship. Claggett signed off on a plan to have Alonso report to Tsuchiyama rather than Saylor.
Shortly after that meeting, Tsuchiyama told Saylor he would not be appointed interim chief and that that someone else would be chosen for the job.
The suit claims that’s because Walters and Vice Mayor Deb Owens confronted Tsuchiyama about the relationship and plan to have Alonso report to him. They threatened to have the city commission remove him from his job at that meeting, the suit says.
In response, Tsuchiyama resigned on Feb. 5, according to the suit.
“At about the same time, Scott Marshall, a member of BCPD and close friend of Derek Walters, told members of BCPD that there were “two down [Tsuchiyama and Hampton] and two to go [Alonso and Saylor]. Just wait,'” the suit says.
Bedsole was named interim city manager on Feb. 18 and she appointed Blocker as interim chief on Feb. 25. The suit says Blocker is not qualified to be chief, and that he and his wife are friends with Walters and City Commissioner Michael Sherzer.
In a March 7 press conference to announce that Saylor and Alonso were on paid administrative leave, Bedsole stated that the city was looking into “an alleged personal relationship that may have created a hostile work environment, thereby having a negative impact on the department and its personnel.” She went on to say that “certain job performance issues are also included.”
That media event, the pair claims, was a “deliberate effort to use the media to damage the reputations of Alonso and Saylor,” and that it “effectively ended their careers with the BCPD and constitutes a constructive termination of employment.”
They say the investigation into their relationship is a “sham” to justify the suspensions. They say 26 interviews at which a court reporter was present, but at which Saylor and Alonso were neither present nor had a representative, constituted a “one-sided trial in absentia.”
The suits says Saylor and Alonso’s requests for an “entirely neutral and well-trained investigator,” counsel, investigation documents and a “hearing before a neutral decision maker” were all denied.
The suit also says the pair asked on April 4 for another hearing about the investigation at which Hampton would be allowed to speak and that the request had, as of the suit filing been “ignored.”
The pair claims the administrative leave, “sham investigation” and alleged media smear campaign violated their First, Fifth and 14th Amendment rights to free association, due process and non-arbitrary treatment, as well as their contractual right to be fired only with “just cause.”
Saylor and Alonso want the city to reinstate them, erase the suspension from their records and compensate them for their losses.