McCall: Small Town, Big Headlines 

Transparency, police department controversies cast long shadows over McCall City Hall

Don Bailey, 76, has served on the McCall City Council since 2006 and as McCall mayor since 2010, but says he'll be stepping away from public office at the end of this year.

George Prentice

Don Bailey, 76, has served on the McCall City Council since 2006 and as McCall mayor since 2010, but says he'll be stepping away from public office at the end of this year.

It's not as if Don Bailey doesn't know his way around McCall City Hall.

"Let's duck in here," he said, ushering Boise Weekly to a back office.

It's just that Bailey, the two-term mayor of McCall, doesn't even have an office of his own in the building. In fact, he's not really the person in charge.

"McCall is one of only three Idaho cities--Lewiston and Twin Falls are the other two--that have a city manager form of government," said Bailey. "I only get paid $350 a month."

Bailey isn't a political novice; after moving to McCall in 1996, he served on the city's Planning and Zoning Commission from 2000-2006 and, beginning in 2006, was elected to the City Council four times.The council has, in turn, elected him mayor twice, first in 2010.

"I never ran for public office before," said Bailey, who grew up in the Valley County mining town of Stibnite before working as an aerospace technician in Southern California.

But rocket science has nothing on politics, just a few months into his first year in office.

"The same year I first got elected to council, I was the target of a recall along with three other council members," said Bailey, with a laugh. "It was my second election in just a few months and I won both times.

"We had a few citizens complaining about the city's building ceiling limits," he said. "It was kind of a stupid thing. They were arguing about 35 feet versus 50 feet. For goodness sakes, look at all the trees here. They're over 100 feet tall. It was silly."

Bailey said surviving the recall effort strengthened his political resolve. But it would be far from Bailey's or McCall's last controversy during his time in office.

In a scathing editorial--going so far as to accuse the City Council of "cowardice" and writing that elected officials were "filled with ignorance for the public interest"--the McCall Star-News took aim at city leaders for their lack of transparency in the suspension and ultimate firing of McCall's chief of police (BW, Citydesk, "Blistering Editorial Rips McCall Council," Feb. 9, 2013).

"Don Bailey is a nice fellow, a good guy and sincere," said Star-News Editor and Co-Publisher Tom Grote, who wrote the editorial, "but he doesn't have the right attitude as far as transparency. I respect his philosophies but I disagree with him."

Grote has seen plenty since he took the reins of the Star-News in 1983, following six years of reporting for the Idaho Statesman.

"It takes no courage on our part to simply blast politicians in the paper or write about scandals. Shit comes down all the time around here, as it does in most small towns," said Grote. "But most daily papers don't pay attention. The Star-News pays attention."

Grote and his staff were paying particular attention during the summer of 2012, when Bailey and his fellow City Council members needed to hire a new city manager. Grote ripped into city officials for keeping a number of their job interviews with potential candidates behind closed doors (BW, Citydesk, "McCall Officials Secretive About City Manager Contenders," July 20, 2012).

"That may have been legal, but it was wrong," said Grote. "Hiring a city manager is the most important thing that the City Council will do. Nothing else compares to that. What could they possibly think would be wrong with an open process? Are they worried about people's backgrounds being investigated? Duh."

Bailey's recollection was a bit different.

"They were done in public. Some of us may have met individually with the applicants. But as far as I'm concerned, this was much more transparent than what I was used to when I was working in the private sector," said Bailey.

Grote told BW that Bailey's previous experience in the private sector was actually the root of the problem.

"They're just not accustomed to the ethics of public transparency," said Grote. "If they're going to run things like a business, then they ought to remember that their customer is the taxpayer."

Bailey laughed off the criticism.

"Tom's a nice guy but he likes to create controversy," said the mayor. "It sells papers."

Indeed, shortly after Bailey and the council completed the interviews and hand-picked their new city manager, Gene Drabinski, the controversies only got bigger. Next in line was the police department.

"I think, from day one, [McCall Police Chief] Jerry Summers and Gene [Drabinski] clashed," said Bailey. "And it was Gene's decision to part company with Jerry."

Grote traces Summers' April ouster as police chief to a September 2012 citizen survey, launched by Drabinski, to garner opinions on Summers and his police force.

"That was really his first tit in the ringer," said Grote. "They asked a bunch of questions and some of them were softballs. But they got over 400 written comments, many of them critical. Four hundred from a city this size!"

McCall's official population is 3,000, with only about 60 percent claiming full-time residency. "There were general criticisms and specific criticisms of the police department, but hundreds of them," he said. "That survey really woke up the council and [the new city manager] wanted to redirect the chief to pay attention to that criticism. The chief resisted and that's when Gene [Drabinski] and Jerry [Summers] came to blows."

Summers was suspended in February and fired in April. He has since filed a tort claim against the city, warning of a pending lawsuit.

"It's an ugly situation," McCall City Councilman Nic Swanson told the Star-News in April.

Bailey told BW that the city wasn't "in a big rush" to find Summers' permanent replacement.

"We have an interim police chief, Larry Stokes," said Bailey. "I think the department is doing fine. There has been a lot of criticism [leveled at the department], but I think most of that was in the past."

But Grote said that the prolonged vacancy leads to uncertainty.

"Gene Drabinski is in no hurry to fill that position and that makes him the de facto chief of police. Gene has decided to set his own tone and he wants to find someone that matches his personality," said Grote. "And that is the conundrum of a city manager form of government. People don't realize the power that a city manager has. He has total control over hiring and firing. The council is asked to give consent in what he's doing; not necessarily approval, but consent. And in the absence of any direction, the city manager has total authority to move forward and ask for forgiveness rather than permission."

Meanwhile, Bailey insists he wants to look to the future, not McCall's recent controversial past.

"After all, this will be my last year in office. I'm stepping down to give somebody else a shot at this," he said. "But we've got plenty of work to do in the next few months.

"We want to complete a governance manual--a guide to the city's rules and regulations," he added. "We've got a lot of new construction, including improvements to Third Street--that project will probably cost about $1.2 million. We're starting to work on creating a new local improvement district in the south part of McCall; and, perhaps most importantly, I really want us to introduce a new local-option tax to help pay for infrastructure. We simply don't have enough money for our streets."

Bailey ought to know. In spite of the fact that he's not the ultimate authority at City Hall, part of his part-time duties as mayor is to sign the checks.

"You quickly learn how damn expensive it is to run the city," said Bailey, who added that McCall's current fiscal year spending plan was approximately $15 million. "That's a lot of money for a town of 3,000 people."

Grote conceded that McCall's elected officials usually run for office for "a noble cause."

"But let's face it, it's a lot of grief, and they find that out shortly after they get into office," he said. "The names and faces at City Hall come and go. It's not just McCall. It's the nature of all politics. But the same mistakes continue to be repeated because there is no real institutional memory in government. So as the press, we have to be constantly vigilant."

Grote already has his sights set on what could easily become City Hall's newest controversy: Drabinksi is recommending that McCall raise property taxes by 9 percent and eliminate five city positions.

"Politics is like shooting fish in a barrel," said Grote.

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