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Bingen Council Considers Changes To Police Contract

Members dissatisfied over hiring, firing practices

Expressing dissatisfaction with its lack of say over hiring and firing issues related to the Police Department, members of the Bingen City Council are considering alterations in the city's police services contract with the city of White Salmon.

During the Bingen council's Feb. 21 meeting, several members said they wanted to amend the police contract.

Council member Randy Anderson pointed out that the contract between the two cities has already been altered without the consent or even notification of Bingen's council members.

Anderson said when Cortese was hired in 2004, the position was under Civil Service. However, before Cortese was sworn in as chief, the White Salmon City Council voted to change the position to an "at will" position.

"The police chief's position went from `Civil Service' to `at will.' Were you aware of that?" Anderson asked Mayor Brian Prigel.

"Yes," Mayor Prigel replied.

"You didn't inform us," Anderson responded.

Council member Tim Hearn said that bothered him.

"This is one of the things I don't like," Hearn said. "They [the mayors] have information we don't have privilege to. That's an area we need to change."

In April 2000, the two cities signed a contract in which the city of Bingen essentially contracted with the city of White Salmon to provide its police services, and the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department was created.

The two cities split the costs to fund the police force -- which has eight officers and a chief when it's at full strength -- based on a percentage of the total assessed valuation of all properties in Bingen versus the assessed valuation of all properties within White Salmon. For 2006, Bingen is paying 26 percent of the costs to run the department, while White Salmon pays 74 percent.

The contract gives the mayor of White Salmon the final say over hiring and firing of the police chief, with consultation with Bingen's mayor.

The council members also said Bingen needed a police committee of its own to review the contract and ensure the Police Department is being run in a way that Bingen is satisfied with.

"White Salmon has a police committee. We don't," said council member Betty Barnes. "It's reasonable to set up our own committee, or have one or two committee members as a part of White Salmon's police committee."

Council member Laura Mann pointed out that the police officers are employees of White Salmon, not Bingen, and Hearn said that raised another issue.

"This is my biggest dilemma," Hearn said. "The mayor needs to be able to remove a bad chief, but the mayor does not need to be able to remove a good chief."

"But whose decision is it to decide that? It's the mayor's," noted council member Terry Trantow.

Hearn said he agreed the mayor should be able to oversee the day to day actions of the police force, but the City Council needed to have some say on hiring and firing.

"Who keeps you from firing a good chief? Civil Service," Hearn said. "We don't have that now. We need to reinstate the chief's position to Civil Service."

"If an employee is covered by Civil Service, there are certain rules to follow before someone can be terminated," explained Anthony Connors, Bingen's city attorney. "It can be arbitrary and capricious if it's an `at will' position."

Mann said the two cities also needed to discuss compensation and the percentage split between the two cities.

Mann suggested the city form a committee to review the police contract, rather than simply putting a member from Bingen on White Salmon's police committee.

"Bingen should decide what we want first," Mann explained.

Mayor Prigel suggested that the council wait before approaching White Salmon with proposed changes to the contract due to the controversy over the recent removal of Police Chief Rich Cortese.

"We should be cautious at this point," he explained. "Given what has been going on. And it's not over yet."

Anderson agreed.

"To open negotiations at this time would not be the best thing and it may not achieve the best result," Anderson said.

Prigel asked for volunteers to form a police committee, and Tim Hearn and Betty Barnes agreed to serve in that capacity.

"You can meet and figure out how to approach White Salmon," Prigel said.

White Salmon Mayor Roger Holen said there is a provision for getting out of the police contract or for amending the contract.

"At the end of the contract, we can negotiate a new one," Holen said. "Making changes in the middle of the contract can be done as well, but it's more ponderous and both sides would have to agree. If the Bingen City Council wants changes to the contract, we'll be more than happy to look at them and see if we still want to have a contract."

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