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Field for NL chief narrowed to four

Officials expect to approve choice at council meeting

By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader

NORTH LIBERTY– There were 50 applicants who wanted to lead the North Liberty Police Department (NLPD) into the future.
With the help of consulting firm Moulder and Associates, select members of the public and city staff, the list was pared to 11 applicants, then six. Two of those candidates withdrew their names from the pool.
And then there were four.
On Wednesday, Sept. 11, the city hosted an open house at the North Liberty Community Library in order for the public to meet the final four. Ultimately it’s a mayoral appointment, but city officials sought residents’ input on what they wanted to see in the city’s next chief.
“We are hoping that as people come in, they will visit with the candidates and then stop and talk with the consultants or myself and give some input,” said North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar during the event. “Personally, tonight, I’ve had a few people do that.”
Former North Liberty Chief of Police Jim Warkentin resigned his position for undisclosed reasons on Feb. 1, 2013. Since then, North Liberty Assistant Police Chief Diane Venenga– the second police officer hired into the city’s police department after its inception in 1999– has served as interim chief. According to city ordinances, North Liberty Mayor Tom Salm is allowed to appoint a new chief. Salm was prepared to promote Venenga to lead the department just after Warkentin’s resignation, he said, but she suggested the city open the position to outside candidates in order to make the selection fair and transparent.
In May, the North Liberty council voted to hire Moulder and Associates LLC of Des Moines, with a contract not to exceed $14,000, to conduct the police chief search. The firm is comprised of a human relations consultant and three former police officers, including William H. Moulder, who served as Des Moines police chief for 18 years.
Before reviewing any applications, Moulder and Associates met with North Liberty city staff and community leaders to learn what qualities and qualifications they felt were important in choosing a new chief. Once applicants were narrowed, the candidates began completing a lot of paperwork; not just a standard application. They were also asked to answer four essay questions about their leadership styles and philosophies on community relations.
Final interviews were conducted with each candidate on Sept. 13. Council broke into three separate groups of two in order to avoid conflict with the state’s open meetings rules to hold round-robin interviews, and then each candidate met with a professional panel that included law enforcement personnel from Coralville, North Liberty and Johnson County, as well as several North Liberty department heads who work closely with the NLPD.
“Traffic violations are not a priority for the city and the council (in hiring a chief),” said Heiar. “Obviously (giving traffic violations) is a necessity, but it’s not a priority. It’s about being a community guardian, and community policing is certainly a part of that.”
Each of the four candidates had something to add about the chief’s role in connecting to the community.
Venenga said she began to shape her law enforcement career at the age of 14, in the Des Moines Police Explorer program. She worked in the Cedar Falls Police Department until she was hired in the newly-formed department in North Liberty in 1999.
“The community policing philosophy I think is vital for a police chief to have, it’s not just picking a program and expecting the community to show up,” said Venegna. “There has to be some relationship building that has to be done through that. It can’t just be the chief alone, or just that person’s vision, it has to be put across the entire department. If I were selected as police chief, I would like to see a community service officer. That (person’s) main responsibility is to make those connections and bring ideas back to the department to see what we can do better.” In her time as interim chief, Venenga initiated “Coffee with a Cop” sessions, where residents could join an officer at a local coffee shop and ask questions about anything relating to the department.
Candidate Jason Doll has been the chief in Carlisle for three years. Previously, Doll had served on the police department in Kechi, Kan.
“North Liberty is an amazing community. I’m so impressed,” said Doll. “My philosophy as a police chief is obviously being a leader to staff members by setting an example, which means being out in the public. The public and the officers want to see you out, they don’t want to see you sitting behind a desk. I like being out, knocking on doors and talking to the people in the community.”
Candidate Brad Nelson has been a police officer for 29 years, the last 21 spent in Columbia, Mo., currently a commander in a department of 160 officers.
“Community relations is a number one priority of mine,” said Nelson. “I’ve been on the Rotary in Columbia for eight years, I’m on the executive board of the Boys and Girls Club for three years, and I’m really involved in Special Olympics. You have to be involved in the community if you are going to work in the community, and I would emphasize to the officers that they do the same thing.”
Michael Brotherton has served in the Iowa City Police Department since 1978, and was promoted to lieutenant in 2010. A resident of North Liberty, Brotherton has been active in the community for years, as a lifeguard and swimming instructor at the North Liberty Aquatic Center and a parent of a fourth grader at Penn school.
“When you are in law enforcement, you want to continue to serve the community. This is a logical progression for me,” said Brotheron. “I don’t plan on being behind the desk a lot. I’ve had an outstanding working relationship with the community and the press. One thing that is very important is to have transparency. I want people to see exactly what we are doing and how we are doing it.”
The three-month selection process has been rigorous, each of the candidates said, and lengthy. However, Heiar said, the steps have been helpful in matching the right person with the very important role a police chief serves in the community.
“Our goal was to find the very best candidate for this position. It’s a growing community and the police chief is a high profile, highly visible position and we want to make sure we have the best possible person in it,” Heiar said.
This week, Mayor Salm was expected to meet with all who had participated in the interview process, and collectively make a final decision sometime this week. Salm will make a formal recommendation for approval at the council’s Sept. 24 meeting.
“I think it is going to be a very difficult decision,” Salm said last week. “We do have four very good people here.”