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Petaluma police chief’s affair raises questions

Petaluma Police Chief Dan Fish

Petaluma Police Chief Dan Fish

By JAMIE HANSEN
PETALUMA ARGUS-COURIER

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.





26 Responses to “Petaluma police chief’s affair raises questions”

  1. Happy Medium says:

    “Law is passion free of reason” Aristotle.
    Love and sex are not reasonable or intellectual circumstances. How can they, therefore, be subject to laws or open discussion for others except for those involved? Sex life does not belong in politics or business. Period. No business in a court, no bearing on affecting others except those involved.

    The only issue here is lying. Sex or Love should never, therefore, be an issue people discuss in public as it bears no influence on public policy.

    Personal behavior should remain private. I’m sorry for the spouse, but welcome to the club. This is an age old problem that should remain sacred and involve only persons concerned with all consequence and result of their own actions.

    How is it that the Argus-Courier had the right to obtain personal voice messages and make them public? If it is because the voice message service is paid for by people’s taxes, then ascribe a fine for wasting money for personal business and leave it at that.

    Who ever snooped to find such romantic exchanges and made it public should have to first disclose all their own sexual behavior and what they do or lack of it (if people are going to be this obtuse and absurd in the first place). I’m so tired of hearing about what other people do with their genitals and who is wrong and who is hurt and all of it. It’s not up to others to decide what is sacred for someone else. They make it even less sacred by malicious exposure. Peoples sex lives ought not be used against them for ANYTHING. It’s no one elses business but those involved and their own personal relationship to notion of “higher power”.

  2. Canthisbe says:

    Sorry to repete for those who can read,
    but
    The Vallejo bankruptcy case has frequently been mis-cited for the proposition that bankruptcy cannot be used to deal with the public employee pension problem or at least not to reduce or terminate pension benefits that have “vested” and I put that term in quotes because there appear to be some issues as to what “vested” actually means legally. In general terms it means benefits that have already been earned vs those earned in the future.
    However, in Vallejo, the City and the City Employees reached an agreement on the pension issue before the Court made its ruling. Where the parties settle an issue as opposed to the court making a decision, the settlement does not establish any legal precedent.
    The Vallejo Court issued a Memorandum after the settlement (and therefore, not a decision) that addressed the issue of whether Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code permits a municipality to reject collective bargaining agreements with its public employee unions
    The memorandum noted that the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to establish uniform bankruptcy laws, and reserves powers not delegated to the Federal government to the states and the people. States are free to permit or forbid their municipalities from filing for Chapter 9, and those that do permit a filing can attach as many pre-conditions as they wish. But once in Chapter 9, the state law and, presumably, state constitutional provisions, would yield to the Federal law. When a state authorizes its municipalities to file a Chapter 9 petition it declares that the benefits of Chapter 9 are more important than state control over its municipalities.
    For more detailed discussion, see
    http://harrisburgcitycontroller.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Chapter-9-and-Act-47.pdf
    See also:
    “But pension plans for retirees and current city employees, including one that allows police officers to retire at 50 with as much as 90 percent of their pay, remain untouched. The city chose not to test whether messing with pensions would be allowed even in bankruptcy, and so remains on the hook for some $195 million in unfinanced pension liabilities”.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/23/us/23bcweber.html
    It also appears, according to the Federal Judge who handled the case, that the Orange County case never held that municipal pensions could not be discharged in bankruptcy either.
    Federal bankruptcy code trumps state law, meaning protections offered by the state and cities don’t have to apply, said John Ryan. He’s a retired federal judge who should know. Ryan presided over the largest municipal bankruptcy in history, Orange County’s 1994 case. No one has said that a bankruptcy judge couldn’t erase pension obligations. That doesn’t make it likely, though.
    “I think probably politically as well as from a general fairness standpoint it would be very difficult to do that,” Ryan said. “I think probably the reason we haven’t seen the issue and haven’t seen it attempted through a plan is that it would be a very tough sell.”
    To recap: It appears legally possible for a city to reduce pension benefits through bankruptcy. No one has tried it before, but someone will. That bankruptcy will be a costly war with an uncertain outcome.
    http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/government/article_0418be36-1aa3-11df-840f-001cc4c03286.htm
    While its not certain that cities and counties would be able to discharge existing pension obligations in bankruptcy because of a number of other bankruptcy issues, no one should dismiss the possibility out-of-hand based on the Vallejo case. The case does not say that municipal pensions cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and, in fact, suggests that they can.

  3. Vowel Movement says:

    Mr. Stubblefield… your point, sir, was that if we pay our police officers less or require them to participate in the expense of their own retirements and health insurance, than we should not expect them to be any more moral than a plumber… your words:

    “If the public is only willing to compensate police officers with less than what plumbers earn, then no one should expect moral conduct at any level higher than from a plumber.

    Perhaps my thinking is indeed wishful, but to suggest that people who make less money are incapable of being honest seems patently ignorant and self-serving.

    Your assertions are insulting to the working class of this country and I think you owe them an apology instead of a lame attempt at explaining your intent. I know plenty of hard working lower income earners who espouse a personal lifestyle of honesty and integrity. Their salary is irrelevant.

  4. Jim says:

    Good point Union Guy. CA is has a $500 billion unfunded pension liability that grows every year. Yep, the facts are clear. Pensions aren’t a problem. This is why the Wall Street Journal concluded that the pay, benefits and pension for CA prison guards are more valuable than a Harvard education.

    Spoken like a true union member, sapping off the taxpayer.

  5. David Stubblebine says:

    I have nothing against plumbers. My point was that if a plumber had lied to his boss about an affair he was having with somebody in the front office, none of us would care. It wouldn’t be right for him to lie, but we wouldn’t care that he did and we (the public) wouldn’t demand his head. The boss may care, but the public expectation would be less.

    To expect police to exude honesty but then see no connection between this and how they are rewarded is wishful thinking at best and disingenuous at worst. It is certainly unrealistic. This is a free market environment and any commodity (even people, I am embarrassed to say) will fetch what the market will bear. As expectations go up, the price goes up; and expectations on police officers are very high (& rightfully so).

    And even if the plumber lied to his boss, we still don’t know whether Chief Fish did. So let’s pull in our claws and wait for the facts.

  6. Vowel Movement says:

    Mr. Stubblefield (ret).

    Ignoring, for the moment, your position that plumbers are generally less moral than other higher paying professions, I take umbrage with your contention that morality is somehow related to compensation.

    Speaking for myself, I expect our sworn officers to exude honesty, irrespective of how much we’re paying them, irrespective of how much they contribute to their own retirements, irrespective of how much they have to (gasp) contribute to their health insurance.

  7. Union Guy says:

    Jim,
    Not to worry. You won’t have to test your theory about pensions. Orange County went BK and sued over pensions. They lost 3 times and cemented existing pensions at 3% @ 50… Thank you O.C. for insisting you were right all the way to the supreme court who smacked them down and included retiree medical in their decisions. Vallejo went BK and still had to honor existing contracts and their officers still have 3% @ 50 pensions. Get over your temper tantrums and aquaint yourselves with the facts.

  8. Jim says:

    Was Mr. Stubblebine implying that plumbers have low morals? From the dozen officers I know well, and every group function where I’ve interacted with dozens of officers from various departments around CA, I expect nothing from the police. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, I know some god guys who are officers. The problem is the most (yes most) believe they are above the law and/or need the power the job brings so they can bully people.

    And the two plumbers I know make 6 figures easy. I’d like to try the theory that no one would become a cop if the pension didn’t exist. I’d take odds that there would be no shortage. The whole idea that the high pay and pension is required is union rhetoric.

  9. Jim says:

    @ Money Grubber…

    As you are well aware, the “law” is what is enforced, not what is on the books. I know a Petaluma officer who was reprimanded for towing a disproportionate number of vehicles driven by unlicensed hispanics. This officer towed EVERY car pulled over where the driver did not have a license, per the state law. Yet, because the vast majority of those who drive without licenses in Petaluma are hispanic, the numbers are skewed. The officer was instructed to only tow non-hispanic unlicensed drivers so the numbers would balance, and because the hispanics “are only trying to get to work”. I have copies from the officers personnel file supporting this.

    The law is a joke. The SRPD detective I referred to is currently testifying on cases that were pending prior to his termination. Given this officer has a history of pulling his weapon to show how tough he is, issues with domestic violence and continues to carry a weapon even though he is no longer an officer, I won’t name him.

    Believe me or don’t. Doesn’t change the facts.

  10. Mrs. Kravitz says:

    @ Mr. Stubblebine

    “If the public is only willing to compensate police officers with less than what plumbers earn, then no one should expect moral conduct at any level higher than from a plumber.”

    Level of moral conduct based on occupation/compensation – Interesting theory.

    I guess Bernie Madoff and the CEO’s of the bailed out banks didn’t study that theory.

  11. David Stubblebine says:

    Let me get this straight. Police officers are held to the highest standards of conduct and honesty while only deserving a salary no higher than that of any private sector worker while paying at least half of their health care and retirement. If the public is only willing to compensate police officers with less than what plumbers earn, then no one should expect moral conduct at any level higher than from a plumber. These are the compromises that the public must come to expect as they reduce what they are willing to pay their employees. Higher expectations beget higher compensation.

    I know I am reacting to a mix of postings from many articles that are beyond the scope of just this one, but I am trying to grasp some sense of consensus from the Press Democrat reading public and this is where that leads me. I am not advocating reducing the public’s expectations of police officers; quite the contrary. When I entered police work in 1977 the rule was simple: You lie, you die. This was my watchword for 31 years and I still believe this should be the standard of the industry, if not a code for life.

    With respect to Chief Fish: At the very least, this article is grossly premature. The article says Chief Fish maintains that he told the City Manager the truth and I am confident the City Manager is presently looking into that. Posters here are oh, so quick to conclude the Fish is lying with absolutely no shred of evidence or personal knowledge of the case beyond newspaper accounts. We don’t know what happened so we should shut up! I stand by what I said right off the bat: So what?

  12. Vowel Movement says:

    Too many of you are disregarding this story and offering comments such as “who cares”. The issue at hand is that of honesty and integrity. If Chief Fish lied to the City Manager about his relationship with his subordinate, he should be canned. It’s just that simple. A cop who can’t be trusted to be truthful cannot be trusted. There are plenty of examples of officers that have been fired for lying. The Chief should be held to the same standard.

  13. David J. Spencer says:

    “Allegations from his ex-wife”=Axe to grind.

    That says it all.

  14. taxpayer says:

    WHAT A LOSER.

  15. RAW says:

    Jim lives his experience. If all you know are criminals, then all you hang out with are criminals and everyone is a criminal to you. If all you know are liars, than they are the ones you hang with and see. Everyone in your world must be a liar, for they are everywhere, right? I would not pre-judge all for the sake of the few. Someone might consider me prejudice. I would not want that. Who do you pre-judge, based on your experiences?

  16. Real News? says:

    What a terrible story. Who cares about this and why bring up the personal life of anyone when it doesn’t have any impact on the public. Lets hope the new owners of this paper read these comments and look for better reporters. Of course the comment has to be “approved” and they will just censor it. This paper was once a good paper but appears to have turned into a local rag!

  17. RICK JAMES says:

    Its all about honesty…law enforcement SHOULD be the example, no ifs, ands, or butts about it. I expect my community’s law enforcement officers and especially their leadership, to be held to higher standards.

    A LEO who makes a mistake may face some discipline from his/her agency, but will most certainly, and appropriately, be fired for lying to a superior officer regardless of the underlying issue…

    I wonder what else Fish has lied about during his 23 year career?

  18. Truth Teller says:

    I know the Press Democrat and Argus Courier were recently sold. Apparently the National Enquirer bought them.

  19. Money Grubber says:

    Jim,

    Are you aware that there is a state law that REQUIRES all law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to disclose to defense attorneys of cops who are documented liars?

    That issue came up about a year ago when the new Chief of San Francisco Police learned that his department had been in violation of that state law and ordered a fast review of his department staff.

    It turned out, as reported in the SF Chronicle, that the SFPD was forced to admit it had over 100 officers ON THE JOB who were documented liars and who had been still allowed to give “truthful” testimony in court criminal cases.

    As a result, San Francisco prosecutors were faced with hundreds of criminal cases that had been tainted / poisoned by potentially false testimony given by those suspect officers.

    The worst part ?

    The fact that police officers and sheriffs deputies are even allowed to keep their jobs once they have been caught engaging in lies either in reports or in court testimony.

    What is the name of the fellow you spoke of in Sonoma County law enforcement who was fired for lying ? If you cannot say, then your claimed knowledge is suspect itself. If you can say, say so, for the benefit of the community.

    That officer who was fired, per your claim, may have lied under oath and put dozens of criminal defendants at risk WITHOUT THE DEPARTMENT DISCLOSING THAT FACT TO DEFENSE ATTORNEYS.

    To say again, it is a violation of state law for law enforcement and/or prosecutors to allow testimony by a documented liar in court without disclosing same to the defense. Has the Sonoma County law enforcement staff violated state law ????????

  20. Jim says:

    I know officers from every local department (SR, Petaluma, Cotati and SO) as well as large departments (Oakland, Berkeley, SF) and this is not news. From the top down they are liars. I’ve witnessed Petaluma lieutenants lie in court. I’ve witnessed SR detectives lie in court. I’ve witnessed SC Sheriffs lie in court. These lies were blatant and easily shown as such. They admit their lies when checked on them. The problem is that they are rarely checked. It doesn’t matter. SR recently finally fired a lying detective but his buddy remains. Imagine getting arrested on a fake charge and having one of these liars “swear under oath” that they are telling the truth. You get carted off to jail. I wonder how many innocent people were locked up, forever carrying a record now because one of these liars testified to the “truth”. The system is a joke.

    This isn’t a story.

  21. Graeme Wellington says:

    What about leadership by example? Do they have to ask all the candidates if they were faithful to their spouse so that there is a competitive equal playing field?

    I think police chief is a special case and that standards should not be lowered because no one cares anymore. He’d fire any officer under him for lying. How can he do that if he’s a liar? Doesn’t the defense attorney always bring that up to determine “credibility” if they know about it?

    The ex really wants to break it off in him and I’m sure the Argus staff will be playing the voicemails for many attorneys in the future the next time this guys credibility is being disputed.

    Mediocre is the new normal I guess. His accomplishments don’t seem to be much of substance or originality. Petaluma isn’t getting Anthony Bouza are they? No hope for the future of policing. They keep promoting the same type to these jobs. No one can reasonably expect anything to change or improve.

  22. Money Grubber says:

    David Stubblebine:

    I nearly agree with your comment, “so what.”

    With Gov. Brown threatening the voters of California and demanding that voters raise taxes, that implied or overt threat is far more serious to our lives than a cop who was caught in an extra-marital affair.

    If and when the story gets some meat… such as when that cop gets documented as a liar and his word is void in a court room, then it becomes an issue for the public.

    Until then, its just a hearsay story and … he said, she said. Not even worth publishing.

  23. NOTUTOO says:

    Who cares??? A huge nothing…

  24. Dogs Rule says:

    In my experience, integrity is not numero uno on the priority list at City Hall so it would be nice to see Sears get the position and clean up some of the mess caused by the Brown-Fish alliance. Sears is a smart and decent man and as a citizen – I could feel good about his leadership.

  25. Late for That Latte says:

    If it wasn’t a problem for a President, Bill Clinton, why is it of any interest to the Petaluma City Council and City Manager?

    In liberal Petaluma, pretty much anything goes except when the liberals want to use venial transgressions against someone they want to burn in office. The whole affair smells like three day old fish and needs to be thrown out.

  26. David Stubblebine says:

    So what?