Job loss over letter to editor is ludicrous

Nov. 6, 2002

Read the text of Guthrie's letter to the Scottsdale Republic.

Johnny Guthrie sits at home today, out of work and nearly out of his mind with worry.

He was summarily fired a week ago, sent packing from his job as legal adviser to the Scottsdale Police Department. This, because he wrote a letter to the editor.

So what, you might ask, did he say in said letter? What dastardly attack did he perpetrate upon the citizens of Scottsdale? What radical position did he lay out in all its op-ed glory?

He supported the police chief.

I am not making this up.

"When I wrote the letter, I certainly understood that it might be controversial," Guthrie told me. "I was hoping it would open up a dialogue and get people to start looking more objectively."

Instead of opening up a dialogue, it closed down Guthrie's employment as an assistant city attorney.

Scottsdale City Attorney David Pennartz fired Guthrie last week, citing insubordination, disloyalty and "seriously poor judgment" in defending the police chief against criticisms leveled by two city councilmen.

"Your real client is the city of Scottsdale, represented by the City Council," Pennartz wrote. "You were not hired to be Chief (Doug) Bartosh's personal lawyer and your inability to maintain that distinction is harmful to your client and undermines your ability to continue to serve the Police Department and the City of Scottsdale."

That may be legally correct. But it is scary to think someone would be fired for a letter that says the police chief is doing a decent job.

Bartosh has been under fire since summer, when an audit was critical of the leadership in a police agency that has slow response times and low clearance rates for burglaries. Since then, Councilmen Bob Littlefield and Wayne Ecton, have called into question both his leadership and his "lackluster" response to the audit.

Enter Guthrie, a former cop, former prosecutor and, as of a week ago, the city's legal adviser to police. Guthrie, without identifying his city position, wrote a letter to the Scottsdale Republic, criticizing Ecton and Littlefield for "their blatant attempt to besmirch the reputation" of Bartosh. Guthrie took issue with the councilmen's opinion that Bartosh should be removed if he can't make changes quickly.

"To pull a rabbit out of a hat just to please a couple of impatient, ill-informed council members is ludicrous," he wrote.

That's not the only thing that's ludicrous. Guthrie lost his job over the letter and now he's at home wondering how to support a wife, children and his elderly parents.

"It's using the ultimate trump card to smack you down and fire you because that's the ultimate way of silencing views and opinions that are different from yours," he said.

Others say that although the law protects the right of most public employees to write such a letter, it probably doesn't protect Guthrie. "Lawyers aren't just people," said Paul Bender, a law professor at Arizona State University. "Think of it in terms of a lawyer's duty to his client."

But there is also that other duty, the one to citizens, the need to air all sides of a story. Guthrie didn't feel that the media were giving a complete picture and so he tried to fill in the gaps. It was a risk, one he no doubt knew he was taking.

Of course, the biggest risk wasn't to Guthrie but to the First Amendment, the law that allows public employees to speak out on matters of public concern. The law is supposed to protect such people, but after seeing what happened to Guthrie, who would take the chance? I tried asking a few people in the Scottsdale Police Department.

But the silence was deafening.

Reach Roberts at or at (602) 444-8635.

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