The last time we tuned in to the long-running soap opera in Boulder City, the town fathers had just given the boot to police chief Tom Finn, who subsequently filed ethics complaints and legal actions against the city for wrongful termination, alleging that he had been the victim of a “Mormon Mafia” — which Finn says bestows favors on those who share the faith and dishes out pain to those who have yet to see the light.
City leaders aren’t too worried about Finn’s legal complaints because they figure they have the right to hire or fire whomever they choose for the position of top cop. And in interviews with yours truly, they were universally scornful of the seemingly ridiculous notion that religious beliefs have anything whatsoever to do with hiring, firing or any other type of favoritism within Boulder City government.
It isn’t hard to figure out how Finn might come to such a conclusion, even if it turns out he is wrong, and even if his lawsuit is eventually tossed by the courts. After all, four of the five members of the Boulder City Council are Mormons, including the mayor. The city manager hired by the council is also Mormon, as is the city attorney and many other high-ranking officials in the government. The state assemblyman for the BC district is a Mormon. So is the state senator out there. And ditto for the county commissioner whose district includes Boulder City.
I know what you’re thinking — how in the world did former Chief Finn ever come to the conclusion that being Mormon, or being related to someone at City Hall, would be a good thing for one’s career in public service? What the heck was he thinking?
The daytime drama lost some of its sizzle when the city decided to hire Finn’s replacement and picked former Metro deputy chief Bill Conger, whose three decades of law enforcement experience certainly qualified him for the position. Conger’s record is spotless, and everyone I have spoken to about him has only good things to say. The fact that Conger was related by marriage to one of the City Council members in BC wasn’t much of an issue. Those who have watched BC politics for a long time know that such connections are not exactly a rarity out there. Being related by blood or marriage to a bigwig in city government is never going to hurt a person seeking employment in that particular town.
But here’s where it gets weird. Bill Conger is not, in fact, going to serve as Boulder City’s police chief. The statement made by City Manager Dale Fraser back in March, that he would “henceforth exercise the full duties and authorities of chief of police,” turns out to be untrue. In fact, Boulder City isn’t going to have a chief of police at all. The strange twist was uncovered by the Boulder City Review, whose reporter, Jack Johnson, caught wind of what amounts to a pretty strange fiscal two-step in a town long known for its fancy footwork. Johnson got the city manager to basically admit that Bill Conger will not serve as chief of police after all. Instead, Conger will be given the title of “chief of police administration.” And he won’t be paid by the city for his work. Instead, the city will make payments of $114,000 per year to a human resources company based in California. That company will then pay Conger’s salary, while taking a little something off the top for its trouble.
Conger has done an excellent job since taking over for Finn, at least according to folks in Boulder City, but it would be wrong to call him that town’s top cop because, under the new arrangement that will take effect this week, Conger won’t be a cop at all. He will have no authority to make arrests or serve warrants or do any other stuff that peace officers do. (In truth, not many police chiefs make arrests or serve warrants, not since the Ralph Lamb era.)
So why is this kind of slippery maneuvering necessary? It’s a creative way to sidestep the rules of the Public Employee Retirement System. If Conger were to take a paycheck from Boulder City, it would mean his retirement benefits would be cut. Paying an HR company in California is Boulder City’s way of allowing Conger to be a double-dipper. He will be able to collect two paychecks from the public. Nifty, right?
There is a side-benefit to the city. The move will mean the city doesn’t have to pay $30,000 a year for Conger’s benefits. (Presumably, his health benefits are covered by some other government account.) Sweet deal, huh?
According to the original story in the Boulder City Review, city manager Fraser says he checked with the folks at PERS and that they “cleared the arrangement.” Oh, yes, I’m sure they were simply thrilled that a local government found a creative way to sidestep the rules PERS created in order to discourage double-dipping by public employees. It might be more accurate if Fraser had said PERS couldn’t legally stop the arrangement, as opposed to saying it “cleared” the deal.
Bill Conger certainly won’t be alone in receiving more than one paycheck from Nevada government. Hundreds of state employees have pulled this same kind of trick, pretending to retire so they could collect a monthly check without ever actually leaving their positions. At a time when PERS is struggling to remain solvent, and government at every level is slicing and dicing services and budgets, it is tough to work up much enthusiasm for those employees who figure out ways to slurp not once but twice from the public trough. Whoopee.
I applaud the courage of the BC paper for pursuing this story. I have a feeling that the journalists in that town have to tread lightly and walk a fine line when it comes to the obvious internecine connections between all the various officials out there. If one were to draw lines that show all the links between the various officials and public employees, either through blood or marriage, it would be a dazzling, dizzying display.
If the writers of the BC soap opera want to add some mystery to their saga, they might want to tease the audience a bit by asking how this particular California company was chosen to be the conduit for Bill Conger’s paycheck. Did someone pick it out of a hat? Hit the address on a dart board? Or does someone’s Uncle Bob work there, or someone’s old college buddy, or someone else’s former pastor?
Maybe Strategic Contracting Solutions is simply the best in the business, and that’s why it was chosen. After all, that’s how things are done in Boulder City.
GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8.