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City offers to reinstate Cortese as police chief

Council members bid to end lawsuit

It's yet another twist to the storm of controversy that began when White Salmon Mayor Roger Holen fired Police Chief Rich Cortese in January. In the wake of the decisive recall of Mayor Holen by White Salmon voters on Aug. 15, the city has offered to reinstate Cortese as police chief of the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department.

After meeting in executive session on the evening of Aug. 16, the White Salmon City Council returned to regular session and voted 4-0, with one council member abstaining, to support making an offer of reinstatement to Cortese.

As of Monday, the city had received no word as to whether Cortese would accept the offer. Cortese could not be reached for comment by press time Tuesday.

Cortese was hired as chief of the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department in June 2004 by then-Mayor Linda Jones and served for about 18 months. Holen removed Cortese from the police chief's position, with his termination effective April 15, 2006. Holen named Sgt. Bruce Brending, a longtime member of the city's police force, to take over the duties of police chief.

In late April, Cortese responded with a lawsuit against the city of White Salmon.

A court hearing on Cortese's case is scheduled for Aug. 22. However, the city is apparently making a bid to end the lawsuit by offering Cortese his position back.

"Mr. Cortese's termination was not the result of problems with his performance as police chief," read an Aug. 16 press release from Mayor Pro Tempore Francis Gaddis. "The city desires to avoid incurring additional legal expenses and wishes to resolve all issues relating to Mr. Cortese's termination as soon as feasible."

Gaddis offered to reinstate Cortese as police chief, effective Aug. 17.

"The offer is open for Mr. Cortese's acceptance for a period of 60 days," Gaddis explained.

Ironically, on Aug. 2, the City Council voted by a 4-1 count to support Mayor Holen's termination of Cortese as police chief.

Holen declined to discuss the council's offer to Cortese.

"No comment," he said.

On Friday, council member Brad Roberts said he did not expect a quick decision from Cortese.

"I'd be surprised to hear something too soon at the speed these things move," Roberts said. "I'd like to hear from him and what he's thinking. If there is a way to salvage it, let's salvage it. It's hard to do business when we're going through this."

Deborah Phillips, attorney for the city of White Salmon, said she had discussed the offer with Bill Eling, Cortese's attorney.

"My understanding is, he's [Cortese] considering it," Phillips said.

Roberts said he believed the council's move made sense.

"It's a good direction to go. I think it shows the council is trying to move forward and do something that will acknowledge the 61 percent [who supported recall]," Roberts said. "We can't just put a band-aid on it and it'll go away. Maybe this is a first step. The sooner we get this over with, the better for White Salmon."

However, Klickitat County Sheriff Chris Mace cautioned that Civil Service rules regarding hiring procedures could thwart the city's bid to reinstate Cortese.

"You can't just offer a job to someone," Mace explained. "You have to go through Civil Service -- unless the city takes it back out of Civil Service. You can't give preference. That's the whole idea of Civil Service."

According to Phillips, however, a reinstatement is different than the process for hiring a new police chief.

"The reinstatement goes back to the date of his last employment," Phillips said.

Richard Marx, the White Salmon City Council member who abstained from the reinstatement vote, said he believed the council was acting hastily.

"We go through all this, and now, `OK, here's your job back,'" Marx commented. "It's kind of late, isn't it, after everything that has been said and done?"

Marx pointed out that the council recently voted to make the police chief position subject to Civil Service rules and regulations, rather than an "at-will" position in which the chief serves based on the judgment and wishes of the mayor.

"They've already changed everything. Are they going to turn around now and change it back?" Marx questioned. "They're changing ordinances like it's going out of style. It's a big mess."

Marx also questioned why the council was changing its view regarding Cortese.

"I was never in favor of his hiring to begin with. It's not up to me to offer him his job back, and that's why I abstained," Marx said. "The other council members wholeheartedly stood behind the mayor and his decisions for the termination and found no legal reason why he couldn't do what he did. Well, others see it differently."

According to the joint police services contract between Bingen and White Salmon, the mayor of White Salmon makes the final decision on hiring and firing of the police chief. However, Bingen's mayor is to be consulted on the decision.

Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel declined to discuss the move to reinstate Cortese.

"I really have no comment on that at this point," Prigel said.


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