Just days after the Adelanto city manager fired the police chief, the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department appointed a temporary commander to run the agency while the City Council debates whether the sheriff should take over in the small Mojave Desert town.
The upheaval comes as the city of 18,000 tries to recover from a series of recent police scandals, including a 1994 case in which two officers beat a confession out of one man and forced another to lick his blood off a booking room floor. The two officers pleaded guilty to federal civil rights violations.
By a 3-2 vote, the five-member City Council on Tuesday refused to renew Police Chief Jim Kuntz's contract. The city also has placed the department's second-in-command on paid administrative leave as it investigates complaints of a "hostile work environment" filed by the Adelanto Police Officers Assn.
"It was just a bad situation over there," said Adelanto City Councilman Tristan Pelayes, an attorney for the San Bernardino County Counsel's Office. "This problem has been brewing for a long time, to a point that I was approached by a few officers."
Pelayes, who called for Kuntz's ouster, said the officers' allegations ranged from unfair duty assignments to harassment, including internal investigations of officers who ran afoul of the department's commanders.
Mayor Ted Hartz, who voted to renew Kuntz's contract, accused the recently elected Pelayes of playing politics. Hartz said most of the complaints were groundless and came from a handful of disgruntled officers.
"Tristan Pelayes campaigned on getting rid of corruption in the Police Department, corruption in City Hall, blah, blah, blah," Hartz said. "The chief got railroaded. We've had no turnover, we've had no lawsuits, we've had no scandals out of the Police Department since he's been there."
Kuntz could not be reached for comment.
Adelanto City Manager Richard Oakley declined to discuss the case, saying all personnel matters are confidential.
After Tuesday's vote, Oakley asked Sheriff Gary Penrod to appoint an interim commander until the city decides whether to hire a new chief or disband the police agency and contract with the Sheriff's Department.
Sheriff's Capt. Ed Ripley assumed temporary command of the 20-officer Adelanto Police Department on Friday.
"We're going to do what's best for the city," Oakley said.
In September, the City Council asked the sheriff to submit a cost and staffing estimate for taking over the city's law enforcement duties. Sheriff's officials are expected to submit a proposal later this month.
Pelayes, a former San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy, said the city's Police Department has long been an embarrassment to residents.
Along with the two officers convicted of civil rights violations, last year Adelanto Police Officer Walter Petti was convicted of child molestation and sentenced to three years in prison.
In 1997, a former Adelanto police chief, Philip Genaway, was sentenced to a four-year prison term for embezzling nearly $10,000 from the department's canine unit.