Sebastopol Police Chief James Conner announced his retirement at the end of September, 10 days after the Sebastopol Police Officers Association sent a confidential letter to the city of Sebastopol announcing that police union members had given a vote of no confidence in his leadership.
The letter, which was sent to the City Manager Larry McLaughlin, Assistant City Manager Mary Gourley, Mayor Neysa Hinton and the Sebastopol City Council, detailed a specific list of grievances and demanded that the chief be fired or allowed to retire. (Neither the union nor the city has released this letter, and the city advised reporters who wanted to see it to make a Freedom of Information Act request.)
Then, on Oct. 3, the union released a press release about the no-confidence vote.
“Sebastopol deserves better,” the police union’s press release said. “The poor example of leadership set by Chief Conner has trickled down and poisoned our ranks, and the culture of fear and capricious discipline has resulted in employees who would rather be anywhere else … but feel truly stuck.”
Multiple sources within the city, none of whom agreed to go on record, said they were shocked by the vote and the union’s public announcement — particularly its harsh and condemnatory language. Most said they had no inkling that there was this level of enmity against the chief within the police department.
Conner himself was taken aback by this turn of events.
When asked if the union vote took him by surprise, he said, “Yes, it really did. In fact, since the union demanded the resignation of some of their board members several months ago when their conduct strained labor-management relations, I felt our working relationship had greatly improved. Unfortunately, some of those disgruntled folks were still able to convince enough of our newer employees to go along with this.”
“I was also surprised to see that they presented their vote as if it was the majority opinion of the 28 paid and volunteer members of the department, rather than just the majority of those that attended their union meeting,” Conner said. “The union consists of only 19 of those 28 members.”
Conner said he believed the source of the union’s ire had to do with longstanding personnel issues, which he was not free to discuss.
Since the union’s accusations centered primarily around his management style, Sonoma West asked Conner what, if anything, he could have done, from a management perspective, to have avoided the current situation.
“Personnel matters, by law and policy, are confidential — and as such, we are restricted from discussing or commenting on them. That dynamic can allow rumor and misrepresentation to influence otherwise reasonable people because they have access to only one side of any particular issue,” he said. “In hindsight, I can see that I erred in not taking sufficient action to remove toxic influences from our environment.”
Conner had been eying retirement even before the current unpleasantness. Now he will leave the office of chief of police on Dec. 27, one or two years earlier than originally planned. It is not the end to his long career he would have wished.
“Being publicly smeared at the end of a nearly 24-year career of dedicated service to our community has been trying,” he said.
Despite this difficult ending, Conner said he feels honored to have worked in Sebastopol over the years.
"It has truly been my great honor to have served this community and to have been a part of the dedicated team that leads our city," he said, noting he particularly enjoyed his interactions with local service organizations, school staff and individual community members.
"It has been my goal that every interaction that any community member has with a member of the Sebastopol Police Department will be professional, courteous and respectful," he said.
Conner joined the Sebastopol Police Department as a police officer in April 1996 and has served in various roles throughout his long career, including school resource officer, field training officer and motorcycle traffic officer. He worked his way up through the ranks to police sergeant, then police lieutenant, and in November 2013 to police captain, where he served as second-in-command to longtime Sebastopol Chief of Police Jeff Weaver. Conner was promoted to chief of police on Nov. 7, 2017.
Prior to joining the Sebastopol Police Department, Conner served six years in the United States Air Force and worked in the finance industry from 1989 to 1996. He lives with his wife in Santa Rosa.