White Salmon Mayor Roger Holen has removed Bingen-White Salmon Police Chief Rich Cortese from his position as chief and placed him on "administrative leave."
Mayor Holen said he removed Cortese because he believed Bingen-White Salmon Police Department Sgt. Bruce Brending was not given a fair chance to gain the chief's job following the May 2004 retirement of longtime Police Chief Ned Kindler.
Holen said the move was not a reflection on Cortese or on the way he performed as chief.
"On Jan. 12, Chief Rich Cortese was placed on administrative leave," said Mayor Holen. "On that same day I directed Sgt. Brending to assume all the duties of the police chief. The move was made because Sgt. Brending is and was the best candidate to be chief of the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department. It is the policy of this mayor, and I hope always the policy of the city of White Salmon, to promote from within whenever there is an appropriate candidate for promotion."
Holen said Cortese will have no further official duties or responsibilities with the Police Department, but will receive full pay and benefits until April 15. At that time, his employment with the city of White Salmon will be terminated.
"That will give him full time and energy to look for other employment," Holen said.
Cortese, 50, was hired by former White Salmon Mayor Linda Jones and began serving as police chief on June 21, 2004. He was serving as a lieutenant with the Clyde Hill Police Department when he took the chief's job in White Salmon.
In an interview on Monday, Cortese said he was surprised by the mayor's decision.
"I'm still kind of numb," he said. "I left a pretty good job up north. I took a drop in pay to come here. That's how bad I wanted the job. If I would have known this was going to happen, I would have saved myself the move."
Holen pointed out that the mayor has the authority to appoint the police chief.
"He, as well as all other salaried city positions, serve at the pleasure of the mayor," Holen said. "The police chief does not have a contract. The position is a mayoral appointment."
Holen added that Brending had been in line to be police chief before Kindler retired in May 2004.
"Chief Kindler groomed Bruce to take over the position," Holen explained. "Bruce has taken all the necessary administrative and management courses and is ready for the job."
Cortese has been in law enforcement for nearly 28 years, and his first law enforcement position was with the White Salmon Police Department. He was hired as a patrol officer in White Salmon in 1978 and served for over two years. He later served more than six years with the Bingen Police Department.
"From the age of 5, I knew I wanted to be a cop," Cortese said. "One of the proudest days of my life is the day I graduated from the Police Academy."
Cortese said his link with the local community was one of the reasons he wanted to be police chief here.
"I spent the better portion of my life preparing to be the chief of police for a city where you know the people and life is good," he said. "I've had to face and overcome many hurdles and obstacles. I enjoyed having the chance to come back here."
"In a nutshell, this is not about Rich. It's about Bruce Brending," Holen said.
Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel also said the change at the top was not because of any failings on Cortese's part.
"I have no objections to Rich -- he did all right," Prigel said.
Cortese said the comments from the mayors were no consolation.
"I don't see it unless there's been a problem," Cortese said. "I trusted that my work would be judged on its own merits. Unfortunately, it looks like how I did my job has nothing to do with whether I get to keep it. I just wanted to do a good job and build upon the professionalism of the department. And I like working with a really good group of officers who work hard and go the extra mile to help each other out and provide quality and professional service to the community."
Cortese said he was unsure what his next step would be.
"I'd really hate to go back to the Seattle area. I wanted to get out of there," Cortese said. "But I need a job, and I'm too old to start at the bottom of the pile again."
Cortese said he was also worried about the financial impact of the decision to terminate him. He pointed out that he bought a house in Bingen in January 2005 after accepting the chief's position.
"This could really hurt me," Cortese said. "I could lose my house. If I have to sell now, I'd lose money on it. Three months to find a job is not that much time. Just let me work until I can find a job. Let me work."
Cortese added that losing the job could adversely affect his retirement as well.
"I am only two and a half years away from reaching the age needed to receive full credits equal to my years of service," Cortese explained.
Holen added that he discussed making the switch with the personnel and police committees of the White Salmon City Council, as well as with Bingen Mayor Prigel.
"This was done with the concurrence of all of the above," Holen said.
On Friday, Mayor Prigel said he supported the move to bring in a new police chief.
"I think overall, in the long run it'll be for the better," Prigel said. "The last time we went through this process, Bruce [Brending] was my first pick. Ultimately, Mayor Jones decided Rich was a better candidate."
Cortese said he too believes Brending is a good officer, and does not believe Brending had any role in his termination.
"I don't blame Bruce at all," Cortese said. "Bruce told me he enjoyed working with me, and I enjoy working with him. I know there was an issue about him not getting the chief position [in 2004], but he got beyond that."
Brending has served with the police force in White Salmon since July 1989, when he hired on as a patrol officer. In September 2000, Brending was promoted to sergeant.
Brending was named the city of White Salmon's "Employee of the Year" for 2000.
In March 2001, while off duty in Hood River County, Brending was charged with "driving under the influence of intoxicants." He pleaded guilty to the charge, and subsequently completed an alcohol rehabilitation program.
Mayor Holen said that incident was in the past.
"That's history," Holen said. "I know it's not an issue going forward. If I thought it was, we wouldn't be talking about him being chief. That's past, and in my opinion it's not relevant."
Holen said Brending has earned the right to be the city's police chief.
"My intention is to swear him in formally at the Feb. 1 meeting of the White Salmon City Council," Holen said.