By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Terrell Bolton is telling the city council the same thing I have been hearing all week through the grapevine that he would say: He believes that two weeks ago when he stood in the pulpit of his church and lambasted the mayor for his firing, God had entered him and was speaking through his lips. He asks the 15 assembled city council members: "Did you know the Holy Spirit took me over that evening?"
I read their faces. I don't think they had a clue. In fact, I think right now they're starting to get that saucer-eyed, hair-straight-up, woo-hoo look, like they might all bolt for the back room at any moment. I hope they do, so I can get the heck out of here, too.
Bolton was fired August 26 by the city manager. His lawyer found an arcane provision in our incredibly stupid city charter saying he could have this bizarre "hearing" in which to state his grievances, like Sir Thomas More addressing the Privy Council. The hearing has no point: No one can actually do anything. The real point is to blister the city council into giving Bolton money as a "settlement."
The day he got fired he held a news conference in which his only facial expression was what a frequent confidant of mine called "a wildly inappropriate smile." The next day there was a city council meeting in which his supporters called Mayor Laura Miller a racist and called Ted Benavides, the city manager, a wetback. Then Bolton did a news conference in which he bawled like my Aunt Minnie. Then he did his Sermon on the Mount at his church about how he would not bow down to the mayor. Which we now learn was the Holy Spirit speaking.
But the mayor gets smart this time. Before this séance begins, she has City Secretary Shirley A. Acy read all of the rules for speakers. They can't do this, and they can't do that, and so on and so forth. Quite a list. Then the mayor tells Bolton and his entourage that they will be given 30 minutes to speak. And then she says that every time there is a disturbance in the peanut gallery, she will ask Acy to read the rules again, and each reading will come out of their 30 minutes.
When Acy reads you the rules, you feel like you're in for a buzz haircut and a 30-mile hike. The room is now very quiet and self-disciplined.
Bolton is telling the council that the words that night flowed autonomically from his lips, because it was God speaking them. I'm thinking it through: The unavoidable implication is that God is mad at Laura Miller, our mayor, for allowing Ted Benavides, our city manager, to fire Terrell Bolton, our former police chief. Talk about a micromanager.
Now Bolton's fixing them with his best bashful little boy look. Speaking softly, he says: "Your police chief has been hurt."
Oh, double yikes! I want to call out: "Miss Acy, wasn't that also in the rules? No scary talking about yourself in the third person?" But I am silent, glued to my seat, praying for a fire.
I now know why, when you get fired, they always tell you to leave the building and never come back. It's because they're afraid if the security guards don't frog-walk you to your car, you might hang around and try to talk to them.
He goes all the way around the horseshoe, reminding each council member of a lunch they enjoyed together or a favor he did or a deal they struck. He talks about how there were threats on his life, how he made sacrifices.
"Mr. [James] Fantroy, the night that we had the town hall meeting and you had Mr. Benavides and the city attorney out, I had a fever of over 100 degrees. I came out with a sore throat, but I came out."
Oh, man. This very day my wife and I made our 17-year-old son go to swim practice even though he had a sore throat and a fever of over 100 degrees. And I don't know what that even means, because I think we probably are cruel and unusual parents. But this guy's the police chief.
Here's the other side of it. I wrote about this four years ago when it happened, but since we're in dredging mode, I guess I'll dredge up my own two bits' worth, too. In 1999, when Bolton was made chief, he busted nine top administrators back to humiliation-level jobs such as night shift at the auto pound.
He was fairly open about his motives. He told members of the city council, friends and community allies that there was a "police department within the department" and that he needed to break its back or it would break his. I always thought he was within his rights in doing that, both legally and pragmatically.
This is a city that has had a hard time resolving its racial issues. I don't know if the police department is any worse than other institutions in the city in that regard, but it has serious racial problems. Bolton was the city's first black chief. If he intended to command, he probably did need to make some bold first moves.
But he did it hard.
I talked to some of the folks who were there when it happened. He called a group meeting of all the people he was busting. They had no idea what was coming. A couple of them thought they were up for commendations. Bolton read them a prepared text and then told them there were brown envelopes outside with their new assignments. He left the room, and they argued about what had happened until they realized they were all being busted.
Then they staggered out into the corridor, and there was Bolton, laughing and slapping with the crowd of people who were getting their jobs.
And I still say he was within his rights. I've never been a big fan of touchy-feely firings myself. I know from still-painful personal experience that the words I never again want to hear coming from a boss' lips are, "Jim, we want you to know that this newspaper appreciates the fine contribution you have made here over the years..."
That's worse. If it's all the same to you, I would prefer: "Schutze, grab your coffee mug and run. The Pinkertons are coming."
Straight up, no chaser. Don't put any cherries or paper parasols in my poison, thank you.
But the problem now with Bolton is all this stuff. This injured little boy routine. Had to go to work with a sore throat. Coupled with the God complex. Coupled with the fact that for months before the ax finally fell he was hinting that the city would dissolve in racial chaos if anybody touched his job. Coupled with the bawling. I mean, I'm not really a military type, but I do believe there was a reason General Patton didn't get up in front of the 6th Armored in England in 1944 and sob. I don't know if we'd be speaking German now, but the French might be.
The thing is, you live by the sword, you die by the sword. He was the chief. He had to fire people. Maybe he had to do it hard. That was really his decision. The courts finally ruled that he was within his rights.
But the sword turns. It happens.
All right, I am checking the time, believe me, and according to my watch, we are within minutes of being delivered from this sulphurous agony. Now Bolton and his lawyer have to do the big wrap-up. Bolton says: "We didn't come here today for a handout. I didn't come here to ask anything, other than to get my name back."
That should be easy. All rise! On the count of three: "YOUR NAME IS TERRELL BOLTON!"
Ah, but if that were the prize, what would the lawyer be doing here? Robert Hinton follows his client to the lectern and trots out a theory he has been pitching around town for a couple of weeks, that the city's civil service rules allow the city manager to demote the chief but not fire him. By the rules, Hinton says, Bolton should have been demoted to his last civil service rank.
If my memory serves, that would make Bolton, who was quickly double-promoted, a sergeant.
Hinton argues to the council that by firing him instead of demoting him, the city has injured him. And then the punch line for the day: "I invite the city attorney to please contact me within 10 days of today to negotiate some sort of solution to the problems that were caused by the illegal acts that Mr. Benavides did in firing him without demoting him."
So how was it going to go down, under Mr. Hinton's rules? The former police chief was going to lurk around as a sergeant for a few years in order to make it to some pension date? Talk about damage to his reputation! In fact, most of the damage here has been self-inflicted, and this smarmy hearing is a case in point.
Mr. Bolton, you gutted those guys with a cold hand. But the battle turned, and Mr. Benavides gutted you with a cold hand. Show no mercy. Claim no mercy. You were supposed to know that.
Well, there's one mercy left in heaven: This hearing is finally over, and I'm ready for my root canal.