Barbara Harris, the embroiled Marana assistant police chief who was fired in June, has been returned to her position by a five-member personnel action review board.
The vote was 3-2, indicative perhaps of the turmoil that has surrounded Harris and the Marana department for some months now.
A distant observation of the facts reveals the stickiness. To wit:
• Harris was criticized in two surveys of police employees, one ordered by the town, the other by a police officers union, and was pinpointed as a source of low morale;
• She filed a gender discrimination complaint against the town, alleging a hostile work environment, as did two female officers;
• She was fired, appealed the termination, and has now been reinstated … to a job that doesn’t really exist any longer, because in the interim new Chief Tony Tometich restructured management in the department and eliminated the assistant chief’s position;
• The Marana Police Officers Association doesn’t want her back, with vice president Jason Cann identifying Harris as “incompetent and grossly unqualified for the job;”
• Given her reinstatement, Harris is planning to go back to work. Tometich is urging everyone in the department to remain professional, and is asking Harris to do the same;
• One obvious solution – a settlement between Harris and the town – may be complicated by the financial stress Marana and other governments are experiencing. The city council has adopted a recession plan that curbs spending;
• Underlying all of this is gender. Being a police officer is very difficult work. So is being a police administrator. Being a woman in either of those positions adds its own set of stresses and pressures. “The termination of Assistant Chief Harris was a disgrace to the Town of Marana,” said Minnette Burges, the attorney who represented Harris before the PARB board.
In short, it’s a difficult set of circumstances for Marana, its town council, new Manager Gilbert Davidson and new Chief Tometich. Neither Davidson nor Tometich was in charge when all this stuff was brewing. They’ve inherited a tough problem, and there’s no easy solution.
Cann said people who testified against Harris before the PARB board fear retribution. That is unacceptable, of course. So is poor treatment of Harris if and when she returns to the department.
Cann did throw out a branch. “If she wants to come join our changes and move forward, it’s possible she could redeem herself and be welcomed back,” he said. “If she wants to change her ways and get behind Tometich, things could be OK for her.”
Marana leaders need to be very careful with this one. Harris must be treated fairly. Disgruntled officers must be mollified. Money management is important, but it can’t override the need for a unified police department.
The town has identified a transition to occur in the new year. That’s very wise. Pace in identifying solutions to this complex circumstance is wise.