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City's Mayor, Police Chief Slots Remain In Limbo

A new mayor by September?

With the 60-day clock ticking away, the city of White Salmon still has no idea whether former Bingen-White Salmon Police Chief Rich Cortese will accept an offer to be reinstated to his previous position as police chief.

Cortese was fired as police chief in January by then-Mayor Roger Holen. Cortese's last day on the city's payroll was April 15, 2006.

The controversial removal of Cortese sparked a recall effort against Holen, and citizens voted to recall Holen as mayor in an Aug. 15 special election.

On Aug. 16, the White Salmon City Council voted to reinstate Cortese, setting a 60-day deadline for him to decide if he wanted to return as police chief.

The city's attorney, Deborah Phillips, said Thursday that the dialogue with Cortese and his attorney, Bill Eling of Vancouver, is continuing, but no firm decisions have been reached.

"I think everyone is working diligently, but I don't want to get into a lot of details," Phillips said.

She added there was no way to predict when a final decision might be reached between the parties.

"My crystal ball broke this morning," Phillips commented.

Eling said there were many issues remaining to be worked out.

"One of the things that's difficult from my perspective is, the council has made a 180-degree turn," Eling explained. "In one meeting, they pass a resolution in support of the mayor's decision to terminate Rich, and then at the next meeting they say `we want to reinstate you.'"

According to Eling, even the basic ground rules of the police chief's position were still unclear.

"The city has maintained from the beginning that Rich was an at-will employee," Eling said. "Our position is that he was under Civil Service rules. Part of the problem we have with this offer is that it's so general. He's being reinstated to what? We're talking to the city's insurance carrier, too. There are a lot of issues, but with every case you take one step to get started. We're at the first step."

Eling added that he was surprised by the city's offer to reinstate Cortese.

"I didn't see the city moving toward compromise on anything. Really, their position has been, `we think we did the right thing, your case is frivolous, so forget it.' So it was surprising," Eling said.

Francis Gaddis, a member of the White Salmon City Council and temporarily serving as mayor, said there has been nothing definitive about the police chief situation.

"At this point, nobody can really say. The next move is Cortese's," Gaddis commented on Friday.

Gaddis added that the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department appears to be running "fairly smoothly" despite the uncertainty over the police chief's position. Gaddis said Sgt. Bruce Brending is serving as acting chief.

In addition to settling on a police chief, the city of White Salmon needs to find a new mayor to replace Roger Holen.

Phillips said the process for choosing a new mayor would be set by the White Salmon City Council.

"The next step is, the council is going to develop a process at the next council meeting, then move forward and choose a mayor," she said.

Phillips added that she has no information on who the possible candidates for mayor may be.

"The choice of individuals is totally up to the council," Phillips explained.

Gaddis, who served two terms as White Salmon's mayor back in the early 1980s, said he expected the selection process to take some time.

"It'll take a little while to get things straightened out," he said. "The council may have some decisions at the next meeting on Sept. 6. I don't think they'll choose anyone until the next meeting after that (Sept. 20)."

According to Gaddis, the council will probably ask for mayoral candidates who live within the city limits of White Salmon and are not currently members of the City Council.

Gaddis said the process would not necessarily exclude members of the City Council, but he wasn't sure if a member of the City Council would ultimately be selected for the mayor's chair.

"I don't know. It's up in the air at this point," Gaddis said. "If a council member is chosen, that would open up a vacancy on the City Council."

Whoever is selected to be the new mayor would serve until the general election in November 2007.

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