Secrecy, scripted statements at WDM city hall

This editorial appeared in The Des Moines Register on Dec. 2, 2016:


  • When the chief forwarded one of the officers’ discrimination complaints to the city manager, he noted her issues with “grammar, punctuation and inaccuracies” and added that the complaint was riddled with “rumor or hearsay,” which he later acknowledged was untrue.
  • The chief deleted at least one text message on his phone after all of his communications related to the sexual discrimination claims had been requested. He also acknowledged using symbols to refer to one of the complainants in his written communications — an indication he was trying to prevent them from being discovered through any sort of word-search software.
  • In 2014 and 2015, LaDue essentially wrote his own job-performance reviews. Not surprisingly, LaDue gave himself high marks for his integrity and for having “worked tirelessly” on various initiatives. Given the apparent lack of any legitimate, critical assessment, it’s no wonder the city was blindsided by complaints of discrimination.
  • Court records indicate the city spent $7,688 on “crisis media counseling” by Jamie Buelt, a public relations consultant. Buelt gave City Manager Tom Hadden and Human Resources Director Jane Dodge recommendations on how to handle the media, providing them with background on the plaintiffs’ attorney; a series of talking points; and a proposed press release that accused the complainants of “spitting on the sworn officers and employees of the West Des Moines Police Department” by suggesting the chief’s actions had compromised public safety in the city.
  • On behalf of the city, Buelt drafted a response to a Register reporter’s public records request and, ironically, she also proposed that her written guidance for the city manager be routed through the city attorney whose communications can, at times, be treated as confidential. “That way it is privileged and doesn’t become an issue itself,” she wrote in an email to the city.
  • Buelt sent the city a set of recommendations, labeling the document, “PR Counsel — Privileged and Confidential.” In it, she described how the the complainants’ attorney, Paige Fiedler, attracts news coverage for her clients, labeling her a “media darling,” and she proposed telling reporters that the accusations against the chief “could not be substantiated” by any evidence. The city’s human resources director then provided Hadden with tightly scripted responses for the anticipated questions from reporters: For example: “Q: Why did you (Tom Hadden) refer to the chief as a weird duck?  A: (Chuckle) Well, I don’t recall using those exact words to describe the chief…”

Hadden says Buelt was hired because the city didn’t have a communications director at the time and needed assistance in figuring out how to handle the expected questions about the chief and the department.

It’s understandable that a city would want to effectively communicate its position on an issue of some controversy, but in this case West Des Moines veered close to what Fiedler called taxpayer-funded “oppositional research” that was designed simply to discredit the complaining employees.

West Des Moines’ elected leaders should be asking — publicly, not behind closed doors — some hard questions about why a police chief was writing his own performance reviews. They might also inquire as to why the city felt compelled to hire a PR expert to answer basic, predictable questions about complaints of discrimination.

If a city manager earning $188,575 per year can’t field a few predictable questions without hiring outside help or reading from a prepared script, then West Des Moines’ mayor and council may still have some serious issues to address.