Surprise resident accused of making threat at City Hall

Surprise City Hall [file photo]

By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia

One resident faces criminal charges after allegedly threatening to kill a city employee last month – but despite a history of inappropriate behavior, he will still be allowed to attend City Council meetings in person, in the same building, and only feet from the office where the incident occurred.

That incident, detailed in a Surprise Police Department report, happened around 1:15 p.m. Aug. 1 when Ken Wright, a volunteer member of the city’s Municipal Properties Commission, came to the City Clerk’s Office to get some official documents notarized.

When a city employee asked him for identification – as is required by law for such notarizations – Mr. Wright reached into his pocket and said to her, “No, I’ll show you my gun and shoot you in the head,” according to the victim’s official statement. (Mr. Wright did not choose to comment for this story, as is noted below.)

The threatening conversation took place inside the City Clerk’s Office and was not caught on video surveillance cameras, according to city officials.

Though two of the four witnesses, who confirmed Mr. Wright’s statement, suggested they did not take his statement seriously, the object of the threat said his words made her feel “nervous, edgy and scared,” while another witness said his words made her feel uncomfortable, though not endangered, according to statements in the report.

Mr. Wright left the office shortly after with his completed paperwork, while staffers considered whether to call the police or consult with the human resources department and city attorney before taking further action.

The next day, a report was filed and police officers served Mr. Wright a criminal citation at his home for threatening (ARS 13-1201), a class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail, three years of probation, and a $2,500 fine, if convicted.

When officers served the criminal citation and questioned Mr. Wright, the 82-year-old retiree denied making any threats, saying he could not recall what had been said at the City Clerk’s Office the previous day. He was not arrested and promised to appear in court at the appointed time.

However, having been served, Mr. Wright returned to the City Clerk’s Office  the next day to make a public records request related to the documents he’d signed just two days earlier.

City officials later that day (Aug. 3) filed a trespass order “…restraining, prohibiting and enjoining Defendant from entering or otherwise being present at the City of Surprise City Hall on the first floor of the north hall that leads to the east side of the building to include: the Council Chambers, the passport area, and the City Clerk’s Office …”

Though all council meetings are available electronically – streamed live and archived on YouTube as well as the city’s website – Mr. Wright, according to the order (as well as a later agreement) expressly retains the right to attend City Council meetings at City Hall in person, despite the charges.

But any future public records requests would need to be made electronically through the city’s website.

Police officers visited Mr. Wright’s home again on Aug. 6 to serve him notice of an Aug. 14 court hearing, provide a copy of the injunction against workplace harassment filed against him by the city, and explain the terms of the trespass order.

That Aug. 14 hearing on the injunction was postponed until Aug. 20 and then later vacated when Mr. Wright came to an agreement, brokered by a city attorney, Jeffrey Murray, and the defendant’s attorney, M. Todd Glover.

The agreement reaffirmed the terms of the trespass order with the same exceptions listed above. Mr. Wright is due to appear at Surprise City Court for a pre-trial conference on Friday, Sept. 14.

Despite Mr. Wright’s continued permission to attend council meetings, officials emphasized the security measures in place there and reminded residents attendance and that participation are encouraged and public safety remains a top priority.

“Your Surprise Police Department is dedicated to providing a safe environment for all of our community members, guests, and employees at City Hall,” stated Surprise Police Chief Terry Young, “It is our goal for all persons utilizing the facility to feel safe and secure. As such, we have specific resources dedicated to providing security for the City Hall campus.”

Police officers provide security in the area of City Hall near the City Clerk’s Office and Council Chambers daily during regular hours; for City Council and Planning and Zoning Commission meetings, attendees must pass through a metal detector cordon manned by city police officers to get into chambers. And the whole area is subject to video surveillance.

According to Surprise Police spokesman Sgt. Tim Klarkowski, there have only been six incidents, including the Aug. 1 incident with Mr. Wright, which have resulted in an arrest or criminal citation at City Hall since 2011. Two of those were trespasses committed by a single, different individual.

Previous problems

Last month’s incident was not the first (or even second) serious run-in for Mr. Wright at City Hall.

In two previous instances – first in 2014 and again in 2015 – Mr. Wright said and did things to upset city staffers, leading to a pair of letters sent from then Deputy City Attorney Robert Wingo, warning him to keep his interactions with them professional.

According to documents obtained through a public records request, the 2014 incident was directed toward a highly placed female employee and involved, at least, two disconcerting emails and a handwritten note.

The first email, dated March 6, 2014, was sent from what appeared to be a joint account belonging to Mr. Wright. With the subject line “U,” the email read: “Have a nice week-end, Beautiful Person. Ken.”

The second email, dated April 14 and coming from the same address, contained the subject line “Surprise Girl” and read: “A definite sighting at 1:55 last Thursday afternoon, crossing RR, turning L, then R on Nash.” Appearing to describe an eyewitness account of the employee’s route home, the email signed off: “Omniscient.”

A handwritten note, affixed to the employee’s windshield, was discovered to read: “I saw a license plate on a Expedition in the parking ramp … so I smashed the windshield. U-G-L-I-J. Solve this & get a trip to Arkansas.”

The handwriting on the note appeared remarkably similar to the distinctive penmanship, which appears on numerous public records requests filed by Mr. Wright over the past few years.

After the employee reported the communications, the city’s attorney sent a letter to Mr. Wright, the wording of which seemed to read as much like a commendation as a warning against harassment.

The 2014 letter was dated May 5 and addressed to Mr. Wright at his home; it read (unedited, but with minor deletions to protect the victim’s identity):

“Re: Restricting Contact … to Official City Business

Dear Mr. Wright:

As you know, the City of Surprise is committed to embracing citizen access, involvement, and participation in the city governance process. Undeniably, the City values your service on the Municipal Property Corporation Board and your attendance and active participation at City Council meetings and functions. However, there is some concern with the amount and nature of contact you have been engaging in …

To avoid any future concerns, the City is requesting that you limit all contact with … staff solely to those times necessary to conduct official city business during city business hours. To be absolutely clear, please do not contact the … staff … unless you require city services offered and performed by that Office. This would include in person contact, as well as contact by means of telephone, email, letter, facsimile or any other method. During contact that is city business related, please limit the scope of the contact exclusively to official city business.

Again, thank you for your participation in city government. By following the guidelines set forth in this letter, it is the City’s sincere hope that you will continue said participation in a professional manner while avoiding any potential issues in the future.

City of Surprise
Robert Wingo
Deputy City Attorney”

No other action was taken against Mr. Wright and the police were not notified at the time.

Despite the warning, little more than a year later, Mr. Wright was again warned about things he did and said to upset another highly placed female city employee.

A letter from that employee to then Assistant City Manager Mike Frazier, composed with the subject line “Inappropriate behavior,” provides a narrative of unsettling comments and behaviors, starting with remarks about the employee’s appearance and dress, before escalating to the level of harassment and veiled threat.

“More recently his behavior towards me has turned very negative in tone and his comments are progressively more unnerving,” the employee stated in her complaint.

Her narrative describes numerous events referenced over two years time, as well as several notable interactions during City Council meetings, which were witnessed by multiple city staffers.

In one such run-in, Mr. Wright was said to have approached the employee at a special council meeting; this was her recollection of the interaction, according to city documents: “Mr. Ken Wright approached me before the meeting and told me he had been hired by four men from Michigan to ‘do a job.’ I asked what the job was and he replied, ‘To mug you.’”

After the second employee complained about the behavior, Mr. Wright received another warning letter from the city’s attorney. And again, the 2015 letter, mailed to his home address, seems to devote as much energy to praising Mr. Wright as it did to warning him against future harassment.

The letter read, in part:

“Dear Mr. Wright:

Thank you for your attendance and active participation at City Council meetings and other city functions. The City greatly values community interaction and input into the civic process. At the same time, there is some concern with the nature of contact you have had with [city employee] during said participation.

To avoid any future concerns, the City is requesting that you limit all contact with [her] to those times when contact is absolutely necessary to conduct official city business during city business hours. To be absolutely clear, please do not contact [her] unless you require city services offered and performed by her in her official capacity … This would include in person contact, as well as contact by means of telephone, email, letter, facsimile or any other method. During contact that is city business related, please limit the scope of the contact exclusively to official city business.

By following the guidelines set forth in this letter, it is the City’s sincerest hope that you will continue said participation in a professional manner while avoiding any potential future issues.

City of Surprise
Robert Wingo
Chief Deputy City Attorney”

In 2015, as the year before, the police were not notified and no further action was taken against Mr. Wright.

Recent response

Considering the nature and number of previous incidents, as well the more aggressive and, potentially, more serious nature of the recent threat, Surprise Today asked city officials to explain their rationale for not further limiting Mr. Wright’s access to City Hall, at least until his current case is resolved.

Several questions were posed to officials, including the following:

  • Considering the proximity of Council Chambers to the City Clerk’s office, how would the injunction have served the interest of protecting the city’s employees?
  • Why was the exemption added to allow him attendance at City Council meetings and at whose request?
  • Why did the city not persist in filing the injunction through the court?
  • Were Mr. Wright’s previous incidents of harassment and stalking raised in the recent deliberations?

In his reply, Mr. Wingo – now head of the city’s legal department – suggested protecting his right to participate in city meetings was paramount to the agreement his staff reached with Mr. Wright.

“The agreement negotiations were handled by my office and the attorney for Mr. Wright, after we evaluated the potential outcomes of the injunction proceedings and taking into account the trespass notice already in place. Bearing in mind that individuals have certain First Amendment protections and rights to engage their local government and elected officials, my office drafted the Petition for Injunction to exclude Council Meetings, in an effort to avoid unnecessary entanglement in potential Constitutional issues,” Mr. Wingo stated. “In summary, the Petition was the balance that the attorneys believed needed to be struck in order to ensure the safety of employees, but at the same time not potentially infringe on Constitutional rights.”

Mr. Wingo also noted the area around Council Chambers, which lies only a few feet from the City Clerk’s Office, has “… Surprise Police present to maintain safety and security for all in attendance …”

Surprise Today also sought comment from City Manager Bob Wingenroth about the city’s handling of the incidents, including this question: “Do you feel responsible for providing a safe and healthy work environment to the employees who work for you?”

As of press time, Mr. Wingenroth has not replied; and the three reported victims have not responded to a request for comment.

Mr. Wright was also offered several opportunities to comment for this story regarding the alleged incident and his upcoming court appearance; but he said on advice of his attorney, he would decline to do so at this time.

Editor’s note: The accounts detailed here come mainly from city records and, since no participation or comment was provided by the victims, their names have been withheld to protect their privacy.

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