By JAMIE HANSEN
As a process gets underway to appoint a permanent police chief in Petaluma, Interim Police Chief Dan Fish is facing allegations from his ex-wife that he concealed an affair with a married police department employee at the time he was appointed to the post in April 2009.
The Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury’s report last year included the “Petaluma Chief of Police” on its list of 2010 – 2011 investigations, which Fish’s ex-wife, Jenny Fish, says she prompted by filing a complaint based in part on frustration over an affair she says Fish was conducting with police department employee Debra Mishler.
The investigation was listed as closed, suggesting that the civil grand jury decided no further investigation was warranted after initially looking into the complaint.
City Manager John Brown acknowledged this week that he’d heard from “two or three people,” including one or two members of the City Council, asking him to check into rumors about the alleged affair shortly after Fish was appointed Interim Chief. Brown said that when he inquired about the allegations, Fish told him there was no relationship between him and Mishler.
But voicemail records obtained by the Argus-Courier suggest that a romantic relationship was underway before that point. The records, which appear to be from February of 2009, include several personal messages from Mishler to Fish clearly expressing love and affection.
Fish this week said he had no comment on those records, and maintained that he had told Brown the truth when he said that he was not in a relationship with Mishler in April of 2009.
It was a few months after that initial inquiry, according to Brown, that Fish approached him to say he had begun a relationship with Mishler.
Fish didn’t dispute that he had a relationship with another woman while still married to Jenny Fish, though he declined to comment on the discrepancy between his statements to Brown and the voice mail records.
Dan and Jenny Fish divorced in 2009, and Fish last year married Mishler.
“I’m always preaching transparency, so I won’t dispute that before we divorced I was in a relationship,” he said. “People make mistakes, my ex-wife and I have made our fair share together, I’m willing to own up to mine.”
He said he wasn’t aware of a grand jury investigation and was never contacted by the grand jury.
He explained that his marriage with Jenny Fish had been an unhappy one for years, adding that Mishler, now Debra Fish, is ‘the love of my life,’ and helped him through difficult times.
Jenny Fish also acknowledged the relationship had been troubled. She said the two were going to counseling and that she was still committed to saving her marriage until she confronted him in February, 2009.
Fish and Brown pointed out that city policy doesn’t forbid relationships between superiors and subordinates within the same department so long as they’re properly disclosed, though such relationships are discouraged.
Brown said he was aware of the grand jury investigation, but that when the case was reported closed he assumed that “whatever they looked into didn’t have sufficient supporting facts for them to move on or do more of an investigation.”
Fish said that Debra (Mishler) Fish began looking for employment outside the police department once Fish decided he would apply for the permanent chief position about six months ago. A couple months ago she took a job at the city’s fire department to avoid any conflict of interest that could arise if Fish became permanent police chief.
Dan and Jenny Fish are still involved in litigation over spousal support, and Dan Fish was recently granted full legal and physical custody over his and Jenny Fish’s 14-year-old daughter.
Meanwhile, the search is gearing up for a new police chief. Brown, whose responsibility it is to hire the chief, said that he’s sent out letters to a half a dozen search agencies, and he’s hoping to have selected one by the end of January. The search for the permanent chief could then take four to five months, he said.
At the time that Fish was hired as interim chief, it appeared that he would eventually be appointed permanent chief. Brown told the Argus-Courier that, “in a way, the next nine or 10 months will be an extended job interview for Dan.”
But a decision to remove the captain positions from the department last summer in a cost-saving move, which resulted in a demotion and pay cut for longtime Police Captain Dave Sears, stirred significant public concern and prompted former Supervisor Mike Kerns, once a sergeant with the department, to publicly object to the move as bad policy and wrong for Sears.
Brown said that the resulting scrutiny over the police chief position contributed to his decision to pursue an outside recruiting firm to help select the next chief.
Fish, a captain before he became interim chief, pointed out at that he would also be demoted to lieutenant if not hired as the chief.
Sears said this week that he will definitely apply for the chief’s position, if given the opportunity. “I look forward to the process, and hopefully we’ll get what’s best for department,” he said.
Fish’s affair with another member of the department will almost surely be a consideration in the search, according to police ethics expert Michael Josephson, of the Michael Joseph Josephson Institute Center for Policing Ethics. Josephson has been commissioned to write a booklet on how an ideal police department should run for the Community Oriented Policing division of the U.S. Department of Justice. “I think when you’re in a position of such significance in terms of the moral message you send, it’s relevant to consider those things that give us a window into your character,” he said.
But, he said, “it’s dangerous to make a single act the basis of judging a whole life’s work.” He added that other factors are important too — like what kind of job he did and what kind of service he’s performed to the community.
Fish, who has worked for the department for 23 years, said that he supported the idea of having a recruitment, saying he wanted what is best for the department. He added that he believes he has a good chance of becoming the next permanent police chief.
He expressed pride in leading the department through difficult fiscal times over the last three years. He listed as some of his accomplishments as: Increasing the K-9 program, bringing back the DARE program in a limited capacity, maintaining a strong gang task force, managing grants and keeping programs funded, and cutting about $2.5 million from the police department operating budget over three years.