POWERS — A former police chief for the city of Powers filed a lawsuit last week alleging his 2019 termination was improper.
In the suit, Robert Baker, who'd been the department's chief and only officer, accuses the city of whistleblower retaliation, age discrimination and defamation for the steps it allegedly took leading up to his removal.
Mayor Robert Kohn, who is mentioned in the complaint, declined to comment on the specific allegations, saying generally they were untrue and that he was comfortable with the actions the city took in respect to Baker's removal. Baker was removed "for cause," Kohn told the World on Tuesday.
Baker's employment came to an end after the city council voted 4-2 to remove him in December following a public hearing and several closed city council meetings about his employment, The World reported at the time.
In one of those closed meetings, the city council issued a memo listing its concerns with Baker's work, which was later obtained and published by KMTR TV. That memo listed 17 directives to the then-chief, asking him to take steps like making changes to the department's social media profiles and ceasing the use of his personal vehicle and K9 for department purposes without appropriate licenses.
But in the lawsuit, Baker contends that he completed all 17 steps within a day of receiving the memo, and city officials publicly distributed the memo that he asserts was meant to remain confidential.
"The form of the publicity was of a highly objectionable kind as the disclosures were made in City Council meetings in the town where (Baker) served as Police Chief," attorneys wrote in Baker's claim for disclosure of private facts.
In addition to that claim, Baker's attorney wrote in the lawsuit that the city had defamed him and painted him in a false light. The claim points to a Facebook group called "Woodward Bernstein" (a reference to the journalists who largely exposed the Watergate scandal), which posted negative statements about Baker and was allegedly traced back to a city hall computer.
Baker also claims in the suit the city discriminated against him for his age and for pointing out what he believed to be legal violations by the city.
In one meeting, the lawsuit alleges, city officials told Baker to "slow things down" with the department, which he took to be an instruction not to enforce the law. He goes on to argue in the lawsuit his refusal to do that was part of the reason he was terminated by the city council.
He also says in the suit that he pointed out to the city council what he believed to be violations of the public meetings law, another basis of his whistleblowing claim.
As for the age discrimination claim, Baker, then 45, says in the suit Kohn told him in August that he thought Baker was too young for the job.
All told from the five claims in the lawsuit, Baker's attorneys ask the court to award him up to $3.25 million in damages due to his firing.
A complaint that Baker submitted to the state Bureau of Labor and Industries in April was dismissed by state investigators because "the record does not contain substantial evidence of a causal connection between any adverse employment harm and (Baker)'s age and whistleblowing activity," state documents show.
The lawsuit also notes an investigation into Baker's performance by the state's Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, which certifies law enforcement officers. That investigation found "no conduct (by Baker) violates the Board's certification standards," according to the department's closure memorandum.
The suit is yet another in a series of challenges the one-person department has faced in recent years: In September, Kevin Macho, Baker's replacement, announced that he'd be resigning from the department after just five months on the job, citing differences with the city council's plans for the future of the department.
City officials have since contracted with a recruitment firm to find a replacement for Macho, but haven't yet found any candidates, according to Kohn.
Since Macho's departure on Oct. 15, the department has been without any officers for the town of around 700 residents. That means any major calls in the city are handled by the Coos County Sheriff's Office, 30 miles north.
The city hasn't yet filed an answer to Baker's complaint in court, filings show, and no hearing dates have been set.