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Police chief controversy again erupts at council meeting

Civil Service won't hear case

For the third consecutive meeting, the White Salmon City Council session was crowded with citizens who wanted to make their views known about Mayor Roger Holen's recent decisions regarding the city's police chief position.

On March 1, several citizens offered their views about the recent removal of Police Chief Rich Cortese and the promotion of Sgt. Bruce Brending to serve as acting police chief.

At the beginning of the council meeting, Holen -- the person with the authority to decide who will be the police chief -- opened the floor to comments from community members.

"Everybody deserves to be heard," Holen said.

Bob Landgren said he opposed changing police chiefs, and said he believed citizens needed to discuss the issue.

"I think citizens should be heard," Landgren said. "We need to get together as a city and talk about this, and not keep quiet about it."

Mike Zitur, owner of the Elkhorn Tavern, pointed out that the city's police force was already short by two officers.

"Is it in the budget to hire another couple of officers?" Zitur asked. "We've already had quote a few burglaries. As a business owner, I feel I'm not getting protection. Once the force gets down, they can't cover as much ground."

Mayor Holen responded that the city did have money in its 2006 budget to hire two new officers.

Zitur turned to Brending, who was in attendance at the meeting, and stressed that his concerns about the way the police chief decision was handled were not personal.

"Bruce, this is nothing against you," Zitur said. "But I feel this was not handled in an ethical manner."

During the session, a letter from Penny White Morris -- former council member and candidate for mayor in 2005 -- was read into the record. In her letter, Morris explained that she supported Holen's decision to make Brending the police chief.

"It is my opinion that Mr. Cortese, although being a great guy, would not best serve the cities of Bingen and White Salmon. I am not at liberty to discuss why I feel this way, but I truly do," Morris wrote. "Bruce Brending would best serve our community's needs. Furthermore, it is not right for City Council members to involve themselves starting petitions, picketing, and carrying on this way."

Randy Anderson, a member of the Bingen City Council, asked about the Civil Service Board.

"How come they haven't been meeting?" he asked. "They haven't met once in three years. I'd like to know why these procedures are not being followed under the RCWs. The Civil Service Board is needed even for promotions. You're clearly breaking the law."

Former Police Chief Ned Kindler, also present at the meeting, said the Civil Service Board had been involved.

"When Brending was promoted [to sergeant] the position was open to all other officers. A Civil Service test was given at that time," Kindler said. "When I was there, the Civil Service was involved and at the test."

White Salmon resident Steven Koontz said it was important for the community not to tear itself apart over the police chief issue.

"I have no agenda, pro or con," Koontz said. "I'm indifferent to who is chief. I disagreed with Linda Jones' decision [to hire Cortese over Brending] and I disagreed with Mayor Holen's decision [to remove Cortese]. We have a wonderful small community here, and people are tearing at the fabric of our community for their own personal agenda. I was strongly against Linda Jones' decision, but I wasn't privy to her decision or what was said in the interviews, and I accepted her decision as an adult. I made a point to welcome Cortese to our community. And when Bruce was promoted to chief, I did the same."

Koontz added that former Police Chief Ned Kindler put together a "fine community Police Department, one of the best around."

"Don't destroy it," Koontz said. "Don't tear our community apart."

Former Mayor Linda Jones also spoke at the council meeting.

"Mayor Holen was quoted in The Enterprise as saying his policy was to hire from within. I agree, as long as there is a qualified employee to promote," Jones said. "But Brending had disqualified himself by law for five years for his DUI conviction. He cannot be chief until March 29, 2006. The dismissal of Cortese was unethical and wrong, and it puts our city in an illegal position. The City Council has not only the responsibility but the duty to take some action."

The law Jones referred to is RCW 35.21.333, which refers to eligibility requirements for a chief of police or marshal. It stipulates: "A person seeking appointment to the office of chief of police ... is ineligible unless that person ... has not been convicted of a gross misdemeanor or any crime involving moral turpitude within five years of the date of application."

Brending pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of intoxicants in Hood River Circuit Court on March 29, 2001. The five-year period cited expires late this month.

Mayor Holen pointed out that his action in replacing Cortese "was done with the advice and consent of five of the members of the White Salmon City Council."

"They were involved and counseled me. Additionally, the decision was with the consent of the mayor of Bingen. This is not something I did unilaterally," Holen said.

After the meeting, Holen said no one was aware of the RCW that Jones cited until "about four or five weeks ago."

According to Holen, the city is not out of compliance with the law because Brending is an acting chief, and has not been formally sworn in.

In another development related to the police chief position, the city's Civil Service Board has declined to hear Cortese's claim.

"It is my understanding that the Civil Service Commission does not cover the position of chief of police, due to the fact that the city of White Salmon elected to make this position exempt as of June 2004," wrote Mike Clark, chairman of the White Salmon Civil Service Commission. "Mr. Rich Cortese has requested a hearing of the board as to the matter of his recent dismissal as chief of police. However, it is my regret that the commission cannot comply with the hearing due to the exemption."


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