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Sparks’s city manager isn’t managing

David Colborne
David Colborne
Opinion
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I’m not and never will be a city manager, but I am a manager — and, in all my years as a manager, I have never fired someone via YouTube video. In fact, I’m moderately certain I’d be fired myself if I tried.

Sadly, all that publicly remains of Sparks city manager Neil Krutz’s YouTube video message to the Sparks Fire Department (and everyone else on the internet) regarding the “resignation” of Mark Lawson — who had served as their fire chief for less than a week — is a sad gray rectangle at the top of an archived Reno Gazette-Journal article. Perhaps the inevitable lawsuit the video triggered encouraged the City of Sparks to change the permission settings of the video to private

That’s a shame. Before the video was taken down, it displayed the exact moment when someone with 24 years of experience with the Sparks city government thought it was a good idea to use the city’s official YouTube channel to publicly announce that “serious criminal charges” were about to be filed against the fire chief he helped hire.

Just one problem — how, exactly, did Krutz find out about the charges before they were filed? If you know the answer, Lawson’s attorney would love to ask you some questions. Generally speaking, when someone is about to be charged criminally, that person’s employer isn’t notified in advance.

Okay, yes, there was and remains more than one problem with Krutz. 

For starters, why did Sparks pay Krutz more than Reno paid its city manager, Doug Thornley in 2021? He had a lower starting salary than Thornley — when Krutz was originally hired in 2019, he was given a starting salary of $223,100.80, about $7,000 less than the $230,000 Doug Thornley was offered by the City of Reno when he was hired in 2020

Krutz wasn’t paid more because Sparks is a bigger city — Reno has triple the landmass and nearly triple the population. 

Krutz certainly wasn’t paid more because of his workload — according to the most recent budget documents released by the City of Sparks, Krutz has 663 full time employees and a $275 million budget to manage. Thornley, by contrast, has 1,423 full time employees and a $915 million budget — that’s more than double the staff and more than triple the budget to manage.

Sure, Thornley finally makes substantially more than Krutz now — Reno gave Thornley a $100,000 raise last year. But even now Sparks residents are paying more than $3 per person for their city manager’s pay and benefits while Reno residents barely pay more than $1 a head for theirs. Krutz didn’t come into his job with years of top-level city management experience that might justify superior remuneration — he was an assistant city manager for Sparks when he was hired. Which, incidentally, was the exact same job Thornley held when he interviewed to be Reno’s city manager.

Does Krutz give Sparks residents a higher quality of city management in exchange for his higher drain on the wallets of the residents of Sparks? Well, if his management of the two largest departments under his purview are any indication, the answer is likely no.

Now, as I’ve written about once before, it would be a bit disingenuous to blame Krutz for the still-continuing legal fallout following the attempted disciplining of Officer George Forbush. As a refresher, Forbush thought it was a good idea to fantasize on social media under his actual name about shooting civilians whose political opinions he disagreed with. Since he’s a police officer, fantasizing about harming the people he’s ostensibly hired to protect and serve — not legally hired to protect and serve, mind you, as no specific legal duty exists for police officers to do so, but perhaps conceptually — was considered, at a minimum, bad press. 

Consequently, Forbush was fi- wait, no, police officers don’t get fired. Don’t be silly.

As I was saying, Forbush was placed on unpaid leave for four days and forced to attend some box checking and liability shifting diversity training. 

Naturally, continuing to exercise the levelheaded temperament that led him to mouth off on Twitter in the first place, he learned his lesson, took his lumps and quietly disappeared into anonym- no, of course he didn’t. Instead, Forbush sued the City of Sparks for a million dollars because his civil right to be a loudmouthed blowhard on the internet while continuing to be paid a six figure wage to carry a taxpayer-funded firearm under the near-total legal protection of qualified immunity must not be abridged or whatever.

Again, none of this is Krutz’s fault. The Legislature certainly didn’t help matters when it passed a “Peace Officers Bill of Rights” in 2019, which granted police officers the right to an investigation, and the right to representation during an investigation, before any disciplinary action can be taken against a police officer — rights which still persist in statute even after the Legislature walked some (but not all) of those protections a year later

I wish the current Legislature nothing but the best of luck on getting a former sheriff to sign a bill that claws any further protections back, by the way.

What Krutz doesn’t seem to be doing enough about, however, are the actions of some Sparks police officers when they put their phones down and actually get to work. 

Take, for example, the successful “suicide-by-cop” of Miciah Lee, whose mother called 911 specifically because he was threatening to commit suicide-by-cop — meaning, he was hoping to goad the police into shooting him. Despite knowing full well that was his intent before they showed up, the officers called on to the scene arrived without a plan. What they lacked in a plan to preserve the lives of everyone on the scene, including the officers themselves, however, they compensated for with obvious anger management issues and a hair trigger. Instead of patiently but guardedly waiting for Lee to calm down, they chose to escalate the situation — first by sending a K-9 unit, then by shooting Lee until the twitching stopped because, and I mean this in a very South Park-ian “he’s coming right for us” sort of way, Lee was allegedly reaching for his gun.

Too bad the tape says otherwise.

That wasn’t the last time the Sparks police department chose to unnecessarily escalate a situation, either. More recently, the Sparks Police Department was called to respond to a robbery. Once on scene, the officers learned the suspects held their victim up with a firearm and stole the victim’s wallet. 

Then, while the officers were still on scene, the suspects fled.

At this point of the incident, nobody has died and no shots have been fired. The suspects should absolutely have been brought to justice, of course, but there was no hurry — the incident occurred in a commercial district early on a Saturday morning, the officers can identify the truck, and there are other police officers who can keep an eye out for the fleeing suspects. Besides, how many cell phones were in the area at that time and how many of those fled the neighborhood at high speed? Given a bit of patience and forethought, justice could have been served with a minimum level of effort, cost and danger to everyone involved.

Naturally, the responding officers took all of this into consideration, threw it out the window, and engaged in a high speed chase that ended in the suspects and the police officers driving the wrong way on Interstate 80. The suspects ultimately slammed head-on into oncoming traffic, killing someone who was peacefully driving miles away from the original scene of the robbery.

To be clear, the suspects should be held accountable for their behavior. Nobody forced them to rob anyone, nobody forced them to run away from the police, nobody forced them to drive 100 miles per hour in residential neighborhoods, and certainly nobody forced them to drive the wrong way on a busy freeway. That’s why the suspects are being charged with the murder of the commuter they drove into and, at the risk of being unfashionably carceral, I hope they are successfully prosecuted and serve their time.

On the other hand, nobody forced the multiple officers involved in the pursuit to play real-life Grand Theft Auto, either. Doing so violated numerous internal and statewide pursuit policies, including prohibitions on driving patrol vehicles 20 miles per hour over posted speed limits, having more than three vehicles involved in a pursuit, and driving the wrong way on public roads. Certainly nobody forced two of the officers involved to haplessly crash into each other during the pursuit like they were extras in a Police Academy movie.

Put everything together — Forbush’s social media presence, the shooting of Miciah Lee, and more than a dozen police officers pretending they’re playing bit parts in an ill-advised Dukes of Hazzard remake in response to an early morning armed robbery — and a pattern emerges. The pattern does not, unfortunately, demonstrate successful top-level management and the encouragement of an organizational culture that respects the community. Instead, the pattern demonstrates the police department has a persistent culture of aggressive macho posturing, one which categorically refuses to consider whether their actions are actually making the community they serve a safer place and instead prioritizes the need to look tough to each other.

That said, Krutz has only been city manager for a couple of years. As previously discussed, police departments in Nevada are statutorily inoculated against meaningful accountability. 

Perhaps Krutz’s managerial acumen is better demonstrated through the state of the second-largest department in the municipal budget — the fire department.

Well, once again, Krutz chose to use the city’s YouTube channel to announce the forced resignation of his recently recruited fire chief — but look, I’ve made some bad hires in my time, too. I can understand how frustrating it would be to recruit someone for a high level position, only to find out a week later from unknown sources (seriously, who told him?) that the person I hired was about to have charges filed against him. I can also understand wanting to vent that frustration to the internet (hello, reader!).

That’s why I ensure the people I manage have both the right and the comfort to tell me no — to stop me from my worst impulses. But, again, I’m not a city manager and never will be one. Maybe the rules of successful management are different at that level.

Let’s look instead at how the fire department was managed before Krutz accidentally hired an alleged steroid dealer to run the department. The reason Krutz had to hire a new chief in the first place was because the department was in open revolt against the previous chief, who refused to advocate for a return to pre-Great Recession staffing levels even though the population and service areas served by the Sparks fire department have both increased dramatically over the past decade and a half. Consequently, according to This is Reno, Sparks has 22 percent fewer firefighters than it had in 2005, despite having a 34 percent increase in population.

Fortunately, Krutz has a plan. He’s going to hire yet another fire chief. The acting chief would like to retire, after all.

Unfortunately, his plan to recruit the new fire chief is to ask the exact same recruiting firm that recommended the last fire chief-of-the-week to conduct another recruitment, all before the legal status of the previous recruitment is even settled.

Now, it’s possible Krutz received a deal on the second recruitment. Perhaps Ralph Andersen and Associates wants to make things right and rebuild the business relationship from the failed recruitment of the previous fire chief.

It’s also possible a man who performs HR duties over YouTube is simply not a very good manager and lacks the imagination to see the possibility of learning from a mistake.

Really, though, for the low, low price of $270,000 per year, how much competence can the people of Sparks expect?

David Colborne ran for office twice. He is now an IT manager, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Mastodon @[email protected], on Twitter @DavidColborne, or email him at [email protected]

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