Dunnellon Police Chief Mike McQuaig announced earlier this month that he would retire and that all of his officers would also resign and join the Marion County Sheriff’s Office at an undetermined date. On April 12, the chief officially issued a letter of resignation to city council members.
“I have enjoyed my tenure here and I would like to believe that I have made a positive difference in the community of Dunnellon and my department. I wish you all the best in the future,” McQuaig said in the letter. McQuaig has been Dunnellon’s police chief since 2016.
He said his last day is “contingent on the transition to the Dunnellon Police Department up to 90 days from this date to ensure a smooth transition.”
The police chief position is required by the city’s bylaws, and the chief is appointed by the city council.
Following the publication of this story, the City Council held a special meeting Wednesday to discuss the future of the Dunnellon Police Department.
Also on April 12, council members, the public and Sheriff Billy Woods offered views on McQuaig’s departure and the future of the Dunnellon Police Department at the regular City Council meeting. The council reminded the public that the fate of the Dunnellon Police Department was up to the council and the residents of Dunnellon. All members expressed support for the continued existence of the Dunnellon Police Department.
“The debate about eliminating our police department did not occur here,” Mayor Wally Dunn said. “It arose somewhere else. This whole idea of getting rid of the police, as long as I’m mayor, will never happen.”
“The Dunnellon Police Department cannot be abolished without an action by the City Council or a vote by the city’s residents (through a referendum),” said Councilwoman Juliane Mendonca. “In the feedback I’ve gotten, I think the residents have overwhelming support for maintaining the police department , and the city council, I know, listens to the residents.”
“My personal opinion is that we need our local police department,” said Councilman Tim Inskeep. “I think financially we’re better off, I think there’s a lot of hidden value that our police (provides). Disbanding the police department, as (Councilwoman) Jan (Cubbage) said, is under the purview of the council. It’s not under the purview of a police chief to decide the transition to the sheriff. It’s up to the council to figure that out with the sheriff and with other knowledgeable people.”
Council members criticized McQuaig’s sudden resignation.
Councilwoman Jan Cubbage said she was told it was motivated by his annual performance evaluation given by council members. She called his response “unfortunate” and said his announcement of an “exit plan,” which included a possibility of a takeover of Dunnellon police by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, was an act of “disobedience.”
Inskeep said the chief’s action as an “executive” was “unacceptable,” but added that he believes the evaluation system is flawed. He said he wrote a second evaluation with higher marks after meeting with the boss to learn more details about his job. He said the evaluation system unfairly suppresses the chief’s evaluation score if a council member writes “not applicable” in a category they are unsure about.
“When I finished, I ended up with a bunch of 2s and 3s (out of 5), and what I realized at that point is that I really don’t know what the boss does on a day-to-day basis,” said Inskeep. “I set up a meeting with the police chief and reviewed what he does, which convinced me even more that we need to keep our local police department.
“When I finished, my assessment changed drastically. With the process as it is, people have to come out with what we judge.”
Cubbage and McQuaig have previously clashed over a performance evaluation, but she gave him the highest possible rating on her most recent review, which equates to a 3 percent merit bonus recommendation, according to the evaluation formula. Mendonca and Inskeep’s overall assessment scores were within the 2 percent merit bonus level.
“I will stand by my evaluation,” Mendonca said at the meeting. “I felt it was very fair. Very few things were marked as less than satisfactory and if so there were comments to support it.
“I have met with Chief McQuaig several times to talk about differences, mostly differences related to the cost of the police department and how to make it sustainable, and plans that have been made (for a new police building).”
Dunn’s evaluation was the most critical on the council, particularly regarding issues related to McQuaig’s working relationship with the council and public relations issues, including his efforts to secure a new headquarters building for his department.
“I have never noticed a productive collaboration with the council other than a continued one
request for a new police building at a cost of $1.5 million that the city cannot afford,” Dunn wrote. “I’ve never seen the chief try to reduce overhead and costs for the police department.”
Dunn concluded his evaluation writing, “When I review the chief’s current salary, I feel he is overpaid for a city the size of Dunnellon compared to other cities our size and he has not performed above average.”
Dunn’s message to the department’s officers was different. At the April 12 meeting, he promised to make officer pay more competitive with other agencies in the region.
“When I hear that we’re underpaying our police officers in the city, we’ll fix it, I promise you that,” he said. “(City Clerk) Mandy (Roberts) and I have been working to have a consulting firm look at the pay scales for all of our police officers and staff to determine if they are being paid correctly (so we can make adjustments).
“If you stick with us against the police, we will get these compensations adjusted, I can assure you of that. Because when I hear that Marion County, Ocala, Belleview and (and) Leesburg are paying their police officers way more than ours, we need to fix it. I have been on the council for four months and have been mayor for one month. We haven’t had time to achieve that, but we will probably achieve that.
Woods said he was approached by McQuaig as a friend about the chief’s potential retirement.
“(There’s) a lot of pressure when it comes to being the executive director of law enforcement. He deserves more than you know to enjoy life. And when he came to me, we had many discussions about what his personal future was, ” Woods said. “He wanted to make sure that whatever decision came from this council, that I would be there for all of you, whatever the decision was going to be.”
Woods said there were false rumors suggesting he and McQuaig were working behind the scenes to undermine the council, and that it was also false that he was working with the city council to undermine the Dunnellon Police Department.
The sheriff said he fielded questions from McQuaig and Dunnellon officers at a meeting with Inskeep in attendance, but said he made it clear the Dunnellon City Council would decide the fate of the Dunnellon Police Department.
“We — me and you — are here together to take care of (Dunnellon),” Woods told the council.
Public comments at the April 12 town meeting favored keeping a police department in Dunnellon.
Former council member Valerie Hanchar said she believed past comments by current council members have hurt morale in the department.
“When I hear from the police that they are worried about their future, I understand why they feel that way. I thought a (performance evaluation) seemed like a high school kid trying to get back at someone.
“I think what is going on in our city is criminal. I feel the real citizens of Dunnellon want our police department.”
Mary Edmundson, who has worked for the police department for 10 years, said, “The chief and officers are a testament to the department’s high standards and exceptional performance.
“I want to express my desire that the men and women who are responsible for protecting our society and keeping us safe receive the compensation they deserve for the risk they take. I understand their need to make a change , if that’s what they need.”