A discussion of the removal of Rich Cortese from his position as police chief was not on the White Salmon City Council's Feb. 1 agenda, but it quickly became the evening's focal point.
It also became the top issue of discussion when the Bingen City Council met on Feb. 6.
During the "town hall" forum of the White Salmon council session, several citizens in the packed meeting room aired their views on the Jan. 12 removal of Cortese as police chief. The action was taken by White Salmon Mayor Roger Holen, who placed Cortese on administrative leave and promoted Bingen-White Salmon Police Department Sgt. Bruce Brending to be police chief in his place.
Randy Anderson, a member of the Bingen City Council, came to the White Salmon meeting to object.
"I protest the replacing of Rich Cortese as chief. He has done an excellent job, and it's cold to abruptly get rid of him," Anderson said.
Petitions Anderson and fellow Bingen council member Betty Barnes placed around town, which "demand the immediate reinstatement" of Cortese, had been signed by 404 area residents as of Feb. 6.
"That's more votes than you [mayor and council members] got in your elections," Anderson pointed out. "I know you have the choice and you're within your rights, but I'd like you to reconsider. Bruce is going to come up and become chief later. He's going to get there."
Mayor Holen said he was happy to receive the petitions.
"Certainly, we'll take this into consideration," Holen said.
Betty Barnes also came to the White Salmon council meeting to support Cortese.
"I'm concerned about the way the chief was handled," Barnes said to Mayor Holen. "According to you, he was doing a good job. None of us would want to be treated like this as employees."
Another Bingen council member, Tim Hearn, spoke next.
"I'm also displeased with this move, as a council person and as a citizen," Hearn said.
Local resident Bob Landgren said he didn't believe replacing Cortese was right.
"The mayor said this is not about Rich, but about Bruce. I disagree. It's about both of these men," Landgren said. "They're both good men. If Bruce was done wrong two years ago, Rich is being done wrong now. And two wrongs don't make a right."
Landgren noted that the signatures on the petitions showed the depth of support for Cortese remaining as chief.
"The community doesn't want this change," he said.
At that point, Mayor Holen called for a show of hands from the crowd, which included many of the officers of the Police Department.
"How many are here to support Rich?" Holen asked.
Most of those in the crowd of about 50 raised their hands.
Jerry Bertschi, owner of Beneventi's Pizza in Bingen, said the move to get rid of the current chief makes the city look bad.
"The decision to replace the chief reflects poorly on our community. He came here from a good paying job, and was willing to take a cut in pay to do so," Bertschi said. "For someone to fire him for no reason -- it sounds like an act of pure vindictiveness. The former mayor hired Cortese. If this wasn't fair to Bruce, the time to disagree was two years ago, not after Rich has been here for two years."
White Salmon resident Judy Stevens asked if Cortese had been offered any other position with the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department after his removal as chief.
"No, he has not," Holen responded.
"That's troubling to me," Stevens said. "I affirm Brending being named as chief, but it disturbs me greatly Cortese was not offered a position in light of the fact he had so little time left until his retirement."
Stevens asked if it's too late to offer Cortese a different position.
"It's certainly not too late," Holen said. "He has not been terminated. We will take it into consideration."
"It's only the right thing to do. Under the circumstances, that would certainly be appropriate," Stevens said.
On Friday, Cortese said he was gratified at the show of support.
"I was kind of surprised there were so many there," he said. "I knew there would be quite a few people going, but I was kind of surprised by how many. And I had no idea the officers were going to be there. That was nice."
Cortese added that he would file a request for a Civil Service Board review of his case.
"I am going to file. I have to cover all my bases," Cortese explained. "They're the ones who can decide, according to the Civil Service rules, if there was cause [for the dismissal] or not. If there was no cause, I guess I get my job back."
However, Cortese said he thought the final decision could come down to a technicality.
"They may say I'm not covered by Civil Service," he said. "That's where the argument is going to be. The big debate will be whether I'm in Civil Service or not."
Mayor Holen said there was little he could say about the situation for now.
"Essentially, nothing is changed," Holen said. "At this point there is nothing I can comment on. It's a personnel matter, and state law requires a high measure of confidentiality."
Holen confirmed that Cortese had filed his request for a Civil Service hearing at White Salmon City Hall, adding that he was pleased with the interest citizens showed at the Feb. 1 council session.
"People got to be heard, and I congratulate their decorum as well as their passion," Holen said. "I think it was a testimony to the high personal regard with which a lot of people hold Rich."
The controversy sparked by changing police chiefs came up at the Feb. 6 Bingen City Council as well.
Former White Salmon Mayor Linda Jones -- who hired Cortese to be police chief in 2004 -- attended and asked the Bingen council members to support the reinstatement of Cortese.
"Mayor Holen has made this decision simply because he can," Jones said. "This is not only an abuse of power, it is unethical, deplorable, and it is wrong. This decision will not only have an adverse effect on the community, but will impact the Police Department adversely as well."
Bingen council members Anderson and Barnes said they wanted the Bingen City Council to send a letter to the city of White Salmon, objecting to the removal of Cortese as chief.
Council member Tim Hearn took it one step further: He said the move to replace the chief could spell the end of the joint police force for Bingen and White Salmon.
"If Cortese is not reinstated, it's a deal breaker," Hearn said. "I'd want to pull the contract back and redo our own Police Department."