LEAD HILL — On Feb. 19, Lead Hill Mayor Cale Thompson went to the Lead Hill School campus to deliver a letter informing school resource officer Larry Hill’s contract with the city was terminated Feb. 15.
“The reason for this termination is that the City has lost faith in your ability to perform the contractually required duties,” the letter said.
“All this was done while I was in Kansas City. I would not have been able to defend myself if they had decided to give me a chance to,” Larry Hill told the Daily Times.
“The first time I came face-to-face with the mayor was when he came to the campus and read the letter to me. He didn’t stick around and talk about it or ask any questions.”
Hill hired Harrison attorney Nancy Mathis to represent him, and she went to work. She scheduled the hearing for 6:30 p.m. March 11.
At the appointed time, Hill, Thompson, Mathis, and city attorney Sam Pasthing were trying to negotiate an agreement that would satisfy all parties.
The city and the school district were signing an agreement to terminate their contract. Hill was asking to go back to work for the city. The crowd was waiting patiently in the council chamber until 7:25.
Pasthing explained the hearing’s purpose. “The law requires that when there is an issue of employment, the employee has a right to a hearing.” He announced that the school district and the city had terminated their SRO contract just prior to the meeting.
About that agreement, school Superintendent Wanda Van Dyke told the Daily Times the school was only trying to accommodate the city’s wishes after officials voted to cancel the contract because it was “not legal.”
Mathis asked if the city had a statement regarding the purpose and reason for Hill’s termination. Pasthing replied that the termination of the contract made the issue irrelevant.
Mathis asked Mayor Thompson why Hill was removed from his employment with the city. Thompson replied that the action was taken in response to allegations presented by Hill’s wife.
Mathis asked what fact-finding the mayor had done in connection with the allegations. Thompson said he had directed his police chief to conduct a drug test, that “that kind of got smushed out,” and then he attended a meeting to discuss the fact that “there was no attempt to squash out or remove the allegations that were made.”
Thompson said he has heard no negative allegations from any source about Hill’s job performance.
Thompson said he never received a report from Chief Starnes about the allegations from Lila Hill. He said Starnes told him Larry was innocent of things Lila said about him, that Lila was crazy, and that the allegations were not true.
“He (Starnes) said I should have come to him the day I received the letter,” said Thompson. “The reason I did not was that I waited for counsel from my lawyer.”
Thompson said he did not personally conduct any investigation into the truth of the allegations. He said he received the allegations through the city’s Facebook page, and that he did “some research” to determine whether the message came from Lila Hill.
“I was advised not to contact her,” said Thompson. He said he did not conduct or order any follow-up with the sender beyond a note that said the allegations would be looked into.
Thompson said there were no allegations against Hill other than those in the Facebook post. He said he did not discuss the information in that post with anybody other than Starnes, Pasthing and Van Dyke at any time prior to the Feb. 14 executive session.
‘Keep his private life private’
Councilman Ed Farmer told Mathis the first time he knew anything about the allegations was in the executive session. He said the session was also the first time he discussed any problems with the SRO contract. He said the contract discussion arose from the discussion of Hill’s employment.
Councilman Kathy Frantz said, “I noted the contract was dated in May and wasn’t signed until November.” She noted that the parties had been performing under the contract since August.
“I suggested that we use the defects in the contract as a way to terminate Mr. Hill’s employment and allow him to keep his private life private,” Frantz said.
“The conversation was that the allegations were serious and in today’s society there are too many issues with mental health and people not acting rationally all the time and that for the safety of our school children, we could not be 100 percent sure those allegations did not have some ounce of truth to them,” said Frantz.
Frantz said there was no discussion of inquiry or investigation into those serious allegations. She does not recall any discussion about how to notify Hill of the decision. She thought Hill was to be informed that his job was eliminated because the city and school were canceling their contract.
Mathis offered Lila Hill’s affidavit completely recanting the Facebook post. In it she said she and Larry had been separated since December and that she had made “inaccurate and misrepresentations” about Larry, that he didn’t have a substance abuse problem and wasn’t suicidal. She also said she was hospitalized at the time of the hearing and couldn’t attend. Finally, she swore the message was sent during an emotional time in her life just after the separation.
Frantz minimized Lila Hill’s statement, noting that Mathis was offering no other evidence supporting it. Mathis asked if Frantz would be willing to reconsider.
Frantz said she was not. “I just feel there would be more — a divorce situation, a disgruntled wife, soon to be ex-wife. For her to send an email there had to be some truth to it.”
Councilman Rick Jones said he became aware of the allegations in the Feb. 14 executive session when the mayor either read or showed the post from Lila Hill to him.
Jones said he wouldn’t be willing to reconsider in light of Lila Hill’s recantation.
Thompson said the SRO contract with the school was discussed in executive session prior to discussion of disciplinary action against Hill. Mathis asked why the contract was brought up in executive since that topic should have been open to the public.
Thompson also noted that Jones asked about Hill’s drug test in open session before the council went to executive session.
“And why,” Mathis asked Jones, “were you asking about the drug test in open session if you didn’t hear anything about the allegations until the later executive session?”
“Don’t know. I must have heard about it somewhere,” said Jones. “That’s going back pretty far.”
Mathis reminded him that was going back exactly four weeks.
Mathis asked Thompson if there were other complaints about Hill.
Thompson replied, “There were some complaints of — if you were a student you would call it truancy. He had some family things that did make him unable to be at work.”
“By family things, are you referring to the fact that his mother was in liver failure and was called up for a liver transplant?” asked Mathis.
“Probably so,” Thompson replied.
‘On a quiet note’
Thompson said that the personnel matter and the contract with Lead Hill schools were not on the agenda because they were not to be up for discussion. He also said that the SRO contract was not discussed by the council until it came up in the executive session of Feb. 14.
Thompson told Mathis that he and the council decided on Feb. 14 to terminate the SRO contract with Lead Hill schools. He went on to say he has been seeking a new officer to fill the position — under a contract that he and the council had dismissed as so hopelessly flawed that it had to be terminated.
Thompson had interviewed a candidate for the job, and reached out to other law enforcement agencies for someone to fill the role. He said he had begun looking immediately after the Feb. 14 meeting for a new SRO — under the same contract he and the council had just voted to terminate.
Thompson affirmed that nobody at Lead Hill schools complained about Hill’s suitability for the SRO position or about his performance. In fact, all the comments he had received from the school were positive.
Thompson claimed that he insisted on Starnes getting a drug test for Hill, and that Starnes delayed. Thompson said he wanted the matter to be investigated before it became a matter of public speculation.
“I don’t know Lila Hill,” Mathis said to Thompson, “but in a single call, I was able to hear her regret over sending that Facebook message. Did you ever make that single phone call to ask her about these allegations?”
“No,” said Thompson.
“But you thought they were grave and serious enough that they had to be taken to the council for them to consider terminating him from his job?” Mathis asked.
“Yes,” said Thompson.
“Did you ever consider suspending him pending an investigation?”
“Did you ever offer that proposal to the council?”
“I did not.”
“I suppose at the time this all took place, I had spoke to the chief about the drug test and it had not been done,” said Thompson. “I felt there was an avoidance of the situation going on, and because the avoidance was happening I thought there might be some grounds behind the allegations.
“I didn’t recommend termination, but I didn’t object otherwise.”
“Was the purpose of the action to terminate the contract with Lead Hill schools or to get rid of my client?” Mathis asked.
“Due to the allegations, it was to get rid of your client on a quiet note,” Thompson answered. “We voted in open session to terminate the contract due to the contract not being valid and having been back-dated.”
Mathis established that the council took no action to fire their employee, only to break the contract he was fulfilling for them. The decision to fire Larry Hill was made by the mayor alone on Feb. 17.
Thompson admitted that the only basis for the termination was the Lila Hill social media post and that he made no inquiry of any kind to determine whether the statements in that post could be trusted.
Mathis asked if the city was still looking for a school resource officer.
“Not at this time,” Thompson replied.
“In that you are the mayor who terminated him by letter, are you willing to reinstate my client?”
“No,” said Thompson. “We have lost faith in Mr. Hill’s ability to do this job.”
Thompson said Starnes told him on Feb. 14 that he (Starnes) would talk to Hill. Then Starnes resigned his position as chief, so it was up to Thompson. Thompson continued talking with Colby Williams and Bill Peerce of the Lead Hill school board about placing a new SRO.
Pasthing asked the group for their consensus as to reinstating Officer Hill.
Councilman Chad Yocham asked how they could reinstate him if they didn’t have a contract anymore.
Pasthing explained that Hill asked to continue to work for the city, in a capacity to be determined.
Mathis summed up. “He’s asking for reinstatement as a city employee. The issue is whether there is cause for termination. He could have sued a couple of weeks ago, but he doesn’t want that. He wants to serve. He wants to go back to work.”
Frantz said the council struggled with this decision. “Nowadays,” she said, “you don’t know what anyone’s mental health is. There are people committing suicide every day that you would not think would blow their brains out.”
She said the accusations “in our opinion were of concern. We were looking at it as to protect our kids. This was not vicious. It was not vindictive. It was a decision made on protecting children at our school.
“You hear on the news every night about somebody blowing their brains out. If you have an accusation of drugs, and suicidal and depression, and even though they’ve been recanted, we did not know that at that time.”
Jones and Farmer voted against reinstatement, and Frantz and Yocham voted for it. The motion to reinstate Larry Hill failed.
“As far as Lila sending these wild accusations. I wish she hadn’t done this,” Hill told the Daily Times, “and I think she really wishes that too. People do crazy things when they’re going through a divorce, and she was determined to do whatever she could to hurt me.
“I hate it for the kids, too. In the seven months I have been at Lead Hill schools, I have formed relationships with many of the students, and they are all used to me being there.
“I would absolutely go back,” he said. “I have no doubt that I can find another job, but this is more than just a job. This is my calling. These kids need somebody to protect them, and also somebody to be there for them.”
Hill has not decided where this goes next. He issued this statement.
“It is clear the mayor and council members went behind closed doors and relied on social media gossip to fire me in order to be out of the contract with Lead Hill schools. I am disappointed, not just for me, but for the students, school and community.”