City Council Recap: Comments on Police Chief’s Forced Resignation, Line Shack Sold over LLP Board’s Objection

Lowell City Council met for nearly two hours and 20 minutes on the Zoom videoconferencing platform last night, and more than an hour of that time was spent hearing comments about the forced resignation of former police chief Steve Bukala. More than 125 people logged into participate in the meeting, which is the largest attendance of any meeting held remotely by the city council.

After citizen comments, councilmembers worked through an agenda that covered the lease of house on city property, sale of a former Lowell Light & Power line shack and approval of repairs at the wastewater treatment plant.

Citizen Comments Regarding Steve Bukala

On Thursday, June 4, City Manager Mike Burns asked Bukala to resign his post as police chief for the Lowell Police Department or be terminated from the position. The move was precipitated by a Facebook post Bukala made sharing the department’s support for four men who were openly carrying weapons in the city.

The post was applauded by some as supporting the second amendment of the Constitution while others questioned whether it was appropriate for the department to condone what they perceived to be armed civilians patrolling the streets.

Overall, 14 people spoke or sent letters in support of the city action, of which six were city residents and nine were non-residents. “Agree or disagree with the content of this post, it promoted division in our community at a time when our leaders needed to create unity and trust,” Heather Cooper wrote in a letter. Other people said a chief of police needs to be held to a higher standard than others, and a few pointed to Bukala’s prior misdemeanor conviction of misuse of the LEIN system as evidence that he should have been removed from office.

Ten people spoke or sent letters in support of Bukala, of which three were city residents and seven were non-residents. “Those boys had a right to walk that street,” said Bill Bledsoe. “I was proud that our chief was supporting their rights.” Others said there was a double-standard and noted city councilmembers have made what could be considered political or inappropriate statements online. Another resident wondered if a post to the website Reddit caused people from outside the community to complain to the city manager and force Bukala’s resignation.

Another five people – three city residents, one non-resident and one whose residence is unknown — sent comments that didn’t take a position on Bukala’s resignation but shared support of law enforcement and the police department in general. “We believe our police department is a good investment,” wrote Rich and Patty Wade. One additional city resident asked the city to clarify exactly what caused Bukala’s forced resignation, noting no official explanation has been offered by community leaders.

Bukala joined the meeting from a tent where he was surrounded by approximately 20 supporters. He did not speak, but his attorney, Katherine Henry, read a lengthy letter asserting Bukala would have been in violation of his oath of office had he not supported the right to openly carry firearms in the city. She further stated that the city manager, council and city attorney are the ones who reflect poorly on the City of Lowell, not Bukala.

According to documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, the city did not appear to have any issue with the men openly carrying their firearms in the city. Instead, the disciplinary action report takes issue with the verbiage used by Bukala and points to other incidents in which Bukala had made statements which could be construed as political on his personal Facebook page and in an email to an area resident.

Henry said the issue could be resolved by the city keeping Bukala on its payroll until the end of November and issuing a statement in support of the second amendment. Bukala has not responded to a request for comment from Lowell’s First Look but told another news outlet he’s not interested in having his job back. In previous conversations with Lowell’s First Look while he was still police chief, Bukala shared he was planning to shift from law enforcement to career as a contractor once he retired from the city.

At issue seems to be his city pension. Bukala was a few months shy of reaching 25 years of seniority. Apparently, that seniority would allow him to begin drawing his pension at age 55 instead of age 65. Burns declined to comment when Lowell’s First Look contacted him for confirmation. Presumably, keeping Bukala on the payroll through November will allow him to reach the seniority needed to begin drawing an early pension.

After all comments had been heard, Mayor Mike DeVore thanked everyone for their participation. This was not an agenda item and no action was taken.

Line Shack Sale Approved

The agenda item receiving the most discussion during the meeting pertained to the sale of a former Lowell Light & Power line shack at 115 Riverside Drive. The utility no longer uses the building and in 2017, leasing the property was discussed with some members seeing the spot as a prime location for a restaurant or a business renting canoes and kayaks.

A lease never materialized and last fall, the Lowell Light & Power board approached city council about selling the property instead. While a utility building, it is owned by the city which has final say over its fate.

In January 2020, the council approved placing the building out for bid at a minimum price of $100,000, the market value. Burns asked if councilmembers would like to include a restricted covenant on the property which would give the city some control over the type of business that could be established there, but councilmembers declined.

The property went out for bid in March and bidding closed two weeks ago. One bid was received in the amount of $76,000 from developers Todd Schaal and Jerry Zandstra who intend to build condominiums at the site. Schaal and Zandstra currently have another condominium project, RiverView Flats, in progress on the other side of the Flat River.

Steve Donkersloot, general manager for Lowell Light & Power, said the board believes the COVID-19 pandemic likely led many people who otherwise would have placed a bid on the property to think twice. The board voted unanimously to reject the one bid received. “We would prefer to reissue the RFP in the future,” Donkersloot said.

Councilmember Cliff Yankovich concurred with Donkersloot’s assessment saying, “I agree the timing could not have been worse to put a property up for sale.”

However, other councilmembers felt differently. “I’m not opposed to taking their proposal right now,” said Councilmember Jim Salzwedel.

Councilmember Greg Canfield initially wanted to reject the proposal because it did not meet the $100,000 minimum set in the bid. However, Burns said the city attorney had stripped out that language before the RFP was issued. No reason was given for its removal, and Canfield said in that case, the bid should be accepted.

Donkersloot noted the RFP stated the city can reject any and all bids so there is no obligation to sell the property. He emphasized that it was a unanimous vote from the Lowell Light & Power board to request the council reject the bid.

“I don’t know why you would turn down the chance to make $76,000,” DeVore said. He noted that the building is costing Lowell Light & Power money and added that there was no way of knowing if the pandemic affected people’s interest in the building. “What if it comes back with zero bids and zero interest?” he asked.

In reply, Donkersloot said that during his four years as the utility’s general manager, he’d had least three serious conversations with people interested in the building. During a previous agenda item, Tonia North, owner of North Star Antiques, also said she was interested in the building but didn’t know it was for sale. And Eric Bartkus, co-owner of Ability Weavers, was recognized for a comment during the discussion and said he knew the building was for sale but had no idea what price would have been appropriate to bid. He suggested a live auction for future building sales.

Ultimately, the sale of the line shack to Schaal and Zandstra for $76,000 was approved on a 4-1 vote with Yannkovich being the dissenting vote.

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Other Agenda Items

Other items on last night’s agenda included the following:

  • Approval of a two-year lease to Gary Dietzel and Sandy Bartlett who reside at 990 N. Washington Street which is city-owned property. The lease was approved on 4-1 vote with DeVore being the dissenting vote.
  • Unanimous approval of final budget updates for the 2019-2020 fiscal year
  • Unanimous approval of a 6% increase to water rates and a 2% increase to sewer rates
  • An update from North on her most recent garden sale event
  • Unanimous approval of $135,181 for repairs to a digester lid at the wastewater treatment plant

During council comments at the end of the meeting, Canfield noted some people had shared concern that the city might be looking at defunding or dismantling the Lowell Police Department. He said that is not something being considered by the council.

The next regular meeting of the Lowell City Council will be on Monday, July 6, at 7pm. It is unknown whether that meeting will take place at City Hall or on Zoom.

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