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Both city of Hoonah and police chief face lawsuit

Posted: Sunday, March 08, 2009

Two dispatchers and a former police officer on Friday sued the city of Hoonah and its police chief. The suit came about a week after the city council voted to keep the chief despite evidence of incompetence and insubordination.

The council is directly implicated for its actions last week: "The City of Hoonah was negligent in retaining Jefferson Hankla as chief once it became aware, through many citizen complaints, through complaints by Hankla's own staff, and through a report by an expert investigator hired by the City's insurer, of his deficiencies in the office of chief."

The city attorney, Kristen Miller of Juneau-based Dillon and Findley, had warned the council that keeping the chief would expose the city to lawsuits, but she also had said the city likely would be sued either way.

"In an era when law enforcement officers must be highly trained and professional, it's been a great disappointment to people in Hoonah that Chief Hankla is not," said Juneau attorney Doug Mertz, who is representing the plaintiffs.

Karen Mills, Annette McLaughlin and Billy Mills - formerly a Hoonah police lieutenant - sued on a variety of charges.

They say Hankla was hired illegally by the council. Mills says he applied but was never considered.

The complaint says Hankla drove Mills to resign by harassing him. Mills, raised in Hoonah, resigned shortly after Hankla became chief. He is now working as a police officer in Craig.

"After his appointment as chief, Hankla conducted a campaign of harassment and intimidation against Mills, his family, and anyone else Hankla considered a friend of Mills," the complaint says.

It says Hankla sexually harassed employees, falsified the time cards of the two dispatchers to avoid paying them overtime, and says he falsely accused Lt. Mills' mother, an employee of the U.S. Postal Service, of opening his mail. The complaint also says he appropriated city property for himself "and generally has acted unprofessionally and in ways that endanger members of his own police department and the public."

A prominent critic of Hankla at the police department, Officer Paul Comolli, did not join in and was not mentioned by name in the complaint. Comolli, the only other officer now working shifts in Hoonah, said last week he plans to sue over Hankla's reign.

Comolli has been working in Hoonah since being fired from the Juneau Police Department, where he was union president. He is challenging that termination in federal court.

The police department has become highly polarized over the controversy, except for a rookie officer who is now attending the academy.

On Friday, city council members said they had not seen the complaint yet. However, they had comments on the debacle in general.

"I don't know what else we can do," said council member Joyce Skaflestad.

She originally voted to hire Hankla as chief but now favors firing him. She along with her husband, Hoonah Mayor Al "Windy" Skaflestad, and council member Steven Brown are in the minority. She was disappointed that an audit by Greg Russell, a retired Alaska police chief now serving as a police consultant for the Alaska Municipal League, did not convince her peers.

"It should have been enough to send him on his way," she said.

Of Hankla, she said, "He is part of the problem, but he is not all of the problem."

Russell's report accusing Hankla of "incompetence and insubordination" led to Hankla's initial suspension, which was overturned by the council last week.

Those who support the chief say his opponents, including the plaintiffs, have sought to undermine him from the start; that his hands have been tied by this mayor and the last; and that the report didn't account for the problems Hankla inherited from previous administrations.

As usual in Hoonah, family and personal relationships complicate the matter.

"Basically, it's divided right down the family line," said council member Alan Fisher Sr., who supports Hankla despite being tribally adopted by Billy Mills' grandmother.

"He probably would have got the job if he had put the application in. I would have supported him," Fisher said of Bill Mills. "The town would have supported him. For him to turn around and sue the city is kind of bizarre."

• Contact Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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