City’s leaders say Austin’s image not affected by 2 controversies

Published 6:34 am Tuesday, November 24, 2009

It’s not everyday that a police captain goes on trial for charges of felony theft and drug possession.

Or that a city investigates a soon-to-be-retired fire chief on allegations that he created a poor work environment at the station.

But in Austin, both of these have been realities — and both have played out at roughly the same time.

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Despite that coincidence, city officials are confident that Austin’s image can remain strong in the face of two controversies.

City administrator Jim Hurm said he sees no looming image problem because the essential services both departments provide have not — and will not — be affected.

“Citizens don’t have anything to be concerned about,” Hurm said.

The administrator said the Austin Police Department was very professional in handling the Curt Rude situation.

Rude, on leave as the department’s captain, took a prescription pill bottle that belonged to a deceased friend from the evidence room two years ago.

Earlier this month, Rude was found guilty on two out of three criminal counts by an Olmsted County jury, including felony drug possession.

The APD brought in the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to help with the case, something Hurm commended.

“How many departments would’ve just swept it under the rug?” he said of the controversy.

In regard to the fire department, Hurm said Dan Wilson’s pending Dec. 31 retirement will not change how the station runs.

He also said Wilson has been an asset to the city, though not without what Hurm labeled as “some problems” during his tenure as chief.

“I think Dan (Wilson) has done a real service over the years,” Hurm said.

Wilson has been the subject of an internal investigation at the department stemming from allegations that he has fostered a “hostile” work environment. At least one firefighter has filed a complaint against the chief.

Wilson has insisted that he has not created such an environment and has labeled the charges as an attempt to have him ousted at any cost. He also said his looming retirement has nothing to do with the controversy, as he had the date planned for months.

Hurm reiterated that none of this affects how the station handles fires.

Mayor Tom Stiehm also said citizens shouldn’t be worried about the two public safety departments.

Like Hurm, he said he has been especially impressed with how the APD has handled itself.

“There’s no image problem with our police department, I know that for sure,” the mayor said. “People should be happy with the police department.”

Stiehm was less complimentary of the fire department, saying there has “obviously” been some conflict at the station. But he said a fresh start will be good for the department.

“(It’s) the right move for the city and maybe for the fire department,” Stiehm said of Wilson’s retirement announcement. “(Wilson) did what’s best for everyone.”

Police chief Paul Philipp said his department used appropriate methods to deal with an internal problem.

“It’s unfortunate,” he said of the Rude incident. “(But) certainly no reason for concerns regarding public safety.”

Philipp has said the department has not made a decision on Rude’s future as an Austin police officer — that could come after his Dec. 21 sentencing — but the chief has said the APD is looking to move forward.

“This was a negative, and we’re dealing with it,” Philipp said. “But it doesn’t outweigh all the positives.”