When a city manager takes over, they become responsible for issues that existed before their arrival. Perhaps there is asbestos complicating construction of a new building, for example.
In 2004, Frank Walsh was the city manager of St. Joseph, Mich. He was approximately a two-hour drive and 14 years away from making a public apology for something in Meridian Township, Mich., that did not happen on his watch.
“It’s one of those things you inherit,” said Walsh when he, along with Meridian Township police Chief Ken Plaga, gave a presentation about the choice to apologize at the 2019 International City/County Association Management Conference.
The “it” Walsh refers to can be traced back to a police report made by 17-year-old Brianne Randall (now Brianne Randall-Gay) in 2004 to the Meridian Township police department. A copy of the report is included in the independent investigation completed in March 2019. Randall reported that Larry Nassar had made contact with her vagina underneath her clothing, attempted to insert his finger into her vagina, and made contact with her bare breasts for at least 10 minutes during a treatment session that was supposed to be for back pain. (Nassar is a former USA Gymnastics team doctor who was also employed by Michigan State University.)
The Meridian Township police department consulted with Nassar -- who said his actions had been medically necessary -- and declined to press charges.
“At that time, our officer [Andrew] McCready believed Nassar and what he was saying and we closed the case. We did not even send it to the prosecutor to be reviewed,” said Walsh.
The timeline leading up to the apology
In May 2013, Walsh became Meridian Township manager.
In September 2016, the Indianapolis Star published an article in which two former gymnasts, one who was not identified at the time and the other being Rachael Denhollander, accused Nassar of sexually abusing them during activities that were supposed to be medical treatments. (Denhollander said her abuse had started in 2000.)
Within 48 hours of the article’s publication, Michigan State University (where Nassar was employed and which also held the lease on the building where Randall and other patients were treated by him) sent Meridian Township’s police department an email asking about the report filed by Randall.
In November 2016, Nassar was charged in Ingham County, Mich., with three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a person under 13.
In January 2017, a federal lawsuit was filed by 18 victims against Nassar. This lawsuit referenced Randall’s 2004 report.
In November 2017, Nassar entered into a plea agreement with the Michigan Attorney General’s office in which he pleaded guilty to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct.
By the time of Nassar’s sentencing hearing in January 2018, the number of victims reporting abuse had mushroomed. One hundred fifty-six victims began giving their impact statements on Jan. 17, 2018. There were 156 statements lasting over seven days.
On Jan. 19, 2018, Walsh called Randall-Gay. He said, “For the first 18 minutes there was no conversation, only tears.” “This is all I’ve ever wanted,” Walsh reports Randall-Gay saying.
She said she had wanted to fly to Michigan from her home on the West Coast to give her impact statement, but she had a newborn and the ticket cost was too high. The township agreed to pay the cost, and Randall-Gay was in Michigan, meeting with Walsh, by the following Monday. She asked Walsh to accompany her to the courtroom the next day, Jan. 23, which he did as she presented her victim impact statement.
On Jan. 24, 2018, Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison on seven sexual assault charges. This sentence was to follow the 60-year sentence from a federal judge handed down in December 2017 for child pornography charges.
On Feb. 1, 2018, Walsh participated in an apology that was broadcast nationally and attended by Randall-Gay via video.
The timeline of Nassar’s transgressions and the consequences has been drastically condensed for the purpose of getting to the Feb. 1, 2018, apology. It doesn’t include lengthy details about the child pornography charges against him, for example. A thorough timeline is available here.
Walsh and Plaga, who is now chief of police in the township, choose to speak about their experience with the mishandled police report and their strategy for dealing with the situation because a different response could have stopped Nassar’s abuse of girls and young women much earlier. They believe that their apologies can help other cities and towns handle such matters better in the future.
Investigate, apologize and foster change
Walsh shared the approach the township took as it became apparent that not pressing charges in 2004 had a direct effect on Nassar’s ability to continue abusing.
The township had a three-part strategy. It conducted its own investigation, apologized and began working to make changes that would prevent a repeated failure to properly manage a report of sexual abuse.
In addition, Walsh implemented a communication plan that relied on creating and adhering to an internal mission statement.
It’s essential to designate one leader who will be the single spokesperson, said Walsh. As soon as it was apparent there was a potential crisis, he met with the township board in a closed session, and one of the board's moves was to designate that single spokesperson.
Walsh recommended creating an internal mission statement that isn’t shared beyond the municipality’s council or board of commissioners. The mission statement for Meridian Township focused on the relationship with Randall-Gay.
Walsh said it’s critical to him, if he does nothing else in the remainder of his career, to “make sure that our department is better going forward than what happened,” acknowledging “the weight that you carry around of knowing what you could've done to stop him."
On March 26, 2019, Meridian Township released results of the internal investigation it conducted after learning of Randall-Gay's 2004 report and the multiple allegations against Nassar that surfaced in 2016. The township allowed Randall-Gay to choose the investigator and act as a consultant to the investigation. The entire report can be read here.
The township’s police department also re-reviewed all sexual assault cases dating back to 2000. That review led to seven cases being reopened (none involving Nassar), three of which are still open.
Despite much advice that Randall-Gay would likely sue the township, Walsh adopted a “don’t be afraid of the courthouse” mentality. “I wanted to do the right thing,” he said, explaining why a public apology was such a clear need. “An apology in person wasn’t enough. We screwed up privately and we needed to apologize publicly.”
During the presentation, Plaga spoke about the ways the township has revised its procedures and the way it handles sexual abuse claims. The department trained extensively to do victim-centered investigations.
“Clearly Brianne's case was not victim-centered. We did not listen to the victim,” said Plaga.
Plaga encouraged city and county managers to make sure training for handling sexual assault cases is up to date. “What they receive in their initial training is not enough, not even for the entry-level street officer officer that is going to have that first contact when somebody who's afraid, who's ashamed, who's having difficulties, comes into that station and wants to report [a] case.”
Randall-Gay worked with Walsh and Plaga to conduct trainings on community-based sexual assault prevention and awareness. The training begins with a video of Randall-Gay explaining what happened to her; this video is used at the beginning of trainings about community-based sexual assault prevention and awareness.
As part of the video, Randall-Gay says, “I think what was hardest for me was the fact that I did what I was supposed to do by reporting his abuse, but I felt like no one heard me or wanted to hear me.”
Walsh pointed out several other factors about the township's experience weighing how to handle this series of events.
A township board member at the time was running for higher office, so the kind of notoriety this situation brought to Meridian Township was not something she welcomed. Walsh says he handled it by being "direct and open" with the board member. It was not an easy interaction, he says, but it had to be handled with transparency, not covered up.
In addition, Walsh faced harsh public feedback for his decision to not discipline Andrew McCready, the officer who made the decision not to refer the case to the prosecutor. Walsh made his decision by weighing the totality of McCready's performance, he says.
It was important to make the decision prior to releasing the report, says Walsh, because, "If I would have waited and made a final decision on his future with our department, he'd have been terminated because the public outcry against him was phenomenal and it's not something that I planned for."
It was also important to understand the uncertainty that arises in a police department at a time like this, said Plaga. Many officers in the department had not been there in 2004, and they were worried about what would happen to McCready and how the department would move forward into the future. Plaga encouraged city managers to understand the need for support in a police department in a situation such as this.
Walsh also stressed the role Nassar's popularity played in the public opinion. For example, he still received 21% of the votes in a Holt County school board race in November 2016, after multple sexual abuse allegations against him had been made and after he had been fired by Michigan State University.
"Most people don’t understand the grooming process that predators go through, and Larry was a master groomer," said Rhonda Fenby-Morse, a Holt County resident. "He groomed the entire community,” she said.
Why owning up to an inherited problem matters
Some types of municipal problems inherited by managers have straightforward solutions. Getting back to the asbestos issue mentioned at the beginning of this post, the substance can be remediated and construction can continue.
It’s different with a young girl’s life. Randall-Gay says she still has nightmares and anxiety related to the abuse. Meridian Township’s apology can’t take away the mistake made in 2004, but it’s a start. The ongoing training being done throughout the state to help other cities and towns recognize the signs of abuse and improve the way their law enforcement officers respond is also progress.
“Bad news won’t get better with age,” wrote Ron Carucci in "Leading Effectively When You Inherit a Mess." With credit due to a courageous Randall-Gay, Walsh and his community took commendable steps to respond after the bad news of 2004 proved to have been so destructive.
Maybe the steps Meridian Township took in 2018 will lay the groundwork for good news in the years to come, and a community much better prepared to handle to handle sexual abuse allegations made by children.
Paula Kiger edits SmartBrief's nonprofit sector newsletters, including the ICMA SmartBrief, and co-manages @SBLeaders on Twitter. She worked extensively in Florida's quasi-governmental children's health insurance program that became a national model, has served as a United Nations Foundation Shot at Life Champion leader, has proofread professionally and has extensive social media experience. You can find her at her blog Big Green Pen, on Instagram, at LinkedIn and on Twitter.