Mountain Home’s plan to quietly suspend bar checks backfires

Mountain Home’s new mayor says he was just trying to be responsive to a local business owner — and avoid a lawsuit — when he asked the city’s police chief to consider temporarily discontinuing nightly checks of local bars.

“They keep complaining the police are running off their customers,” said Mayor Rich Sykes, who was elected last fall.

But his attempt to resolve an ongoing issue in the city quickly and quietly has raised questions about the process, including whether other city officials and the public should have been made aware of the plan for a three-month suspension of bar checks.

“I’ve heard a lot of officers are upset with this, that the mayor is demanding it,” Sykes said. “I think tomorrow we’re going to get every cop together. This was approved by the lieutenants. This wasn’t me.”

An Aug. 17 email from police Lt. Jesse L. Cobos to patrol officers described the “trial period” as “directed by the mayor in agreement with the bar owners.”

Wendy Mastroeni obtained the email through a public records request after receiving an anonymous tip about it. She thought it was odd that the mayor was asking police not to patrol.

“We’ve had issues with underage drinking at the bars,” she said. “So that’s a safety concern.”

Last year, Mastroeni became well-known in the community for leading a petition drive to put the dissolution of the West Elmore County Recreation District to voters; she has since suspended that effort. She and the mayor both acknowledged that they have clashed on local issues.

Mastroeni said Cobos rigorously questioned her during a phone call about her public records request. She said it felt like an interrogation, which is prohibited under state law.

“I was in the Air Force for nine years,” she said. “Talking to a lieutenant, it wasn’t too hard for me, but if he talked to someone else, it might be a little more intimidating. It was really, really, really strange.”

State law says the custodian of a record “shall make no inquiry of any person who requests a public record,” except to verify the identity of the requester, to ensure that the requested record or information will not be used for purposes of a mailing or telephone list, and to protect personal information from disclosure. They may not ask why a person wants a public record.

Cobos told the Statesman that he and Mastroeni had a “dialogue,” during which he asked her which email she was after and how she heard about it.

“It’s just I never had a request like that before,” said Cobos, who has been with the department for about 18 years. “I was just asking for my own knowledge.”

Police Chief Nick Schilz, who was with the Elmore County Sheriff’s Office for 30 years before becoming chief of the city police five years ago, said he wasn’t aware of his officers receiving any specific training on how to respond to public record requests. He said they would do a refresher course on it.

Schilz said the decision to suspend bar checks wasn’t a directive from the mayor’s office. He said the mayor consulted him and his command staff, and they agreed it was worth a shot after a bar owner threatened litigation due to loss of revenue.

“If we can do something as a team, to avoid the city getting sued, we’re willing to try that,” Schilz said.

Mountain Home’s police force has 29 sworn officers, including 17 patrol officers. Sykes said one of the complaints he’s heard about the police is that they monitor the comings and goings at several downtown bars from the parking lot of the Paul’s Market.

“I totally disagree that we’re ruining anyone’s business,” Schilz said.

Schilz said there are body camera recordings of bar customers high-fiving his officers as they do walk-throughs. He said they check IDs only on an as-needed basis, if someone looks underage.

Geoff Schroeder, president of the Mountain Home City Council, said council members were not made aware of the plan to suspend bar checks temporarily.

“I think it’s a fairly significant decision on how to enforce the law. It’s a significant policy decision,” Schroeder said. “Those are something that the council should probably be involved in. But I also don’t want to get in the way of innovation and efficiency, if it’s an executive branch decision in how he deals with department heads.”

One council member, Mark Bryant, owns Mark Anthony’s bar, according to the city’s website. He did not return a call requesting comment Wednesday.

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller