On the afternoon of June 18, Sgt. Bruce Brending of the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department was officially promoted to be the department's new chief of police.
Fittingly, it was former White Salmon Police Chief Ned Kindler who was given the honor of pinning on Brending's chief badge.
Brending, who has served with the local police force since 1989, including many years working as Kindler's second in command, took the oath of office from District Court Judge Bob Weisfield.
About two dozen family members, well-wishers, and friends attended the official ceremony, which was held at the Pioneer Center. There was a round of applause after Brending's promotion was made official.
Brending had been serving as interim/acting police chief since April 2006. His promotion to chief became effective June 19.
White Salmon Mayor Francis Gaddis and Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel both attended the swearing-in ceremony.
"Bruce has been doing a good job," said Gaddis.
Prigel said Brending is a strong choice to be the police chief.
"I've always felt he was best for the position, given his history in the community, and he's been with the department for 20 years now," Prigel said. "He's demonstrated that he can do a good job -- he's run the department for a couple years now."
The city of White Salmon finalized the contract with Brending on June 11. In a special session on that evening, the City Council voted 3-1 to approve a contract making Brending the city's police chief.
The contract is for three years.
"This Police Department is made up of a dedicated, talented, and a well-trained group of officers we can all be proud of," Police Chief Brending said. "For the department, a sense of closure is important. I have spoken with all of the officers, and we are looking forward to moving forward and rebuilding this department. This will be a team effort, using all of their skills, experiences, and suggestions."
Brending's contract calls for a base salary of $5,833 per month in the first year, with stepped increases in each of the following years.
Bingen-White Salmon Police Officer Jim Andring said he hoped the move to make Brending the department's chief will put an end to the controversy that has surrounded the department for the past year and a half.
"We wanted a decision to move forward. That's all we wanted," said Andring.
Because there is an as yet unresolved lawsuit between the city of White Salmon and the previous police chief, Rich Cortese, the contract specifically addresses the fallout from potential settlements to that case.
"Employee understands that a lawsuit is currently pending against the city arising out of the city's termination of its former police chief, Richard Cortese," reads a portion of the contract. "Employee understands it is possible that it may be in the best interests of the city to reinstate the former chief rather than pay ... damages which could otherwise be imposed, or to simply put an end to litigation involving the former chief."
The contract puts Brending on notice that he remains subject to termination depending on what happens in the litigation with Cortese.
"Employee agrees that his employment by the city as chief is subject to termination if the mayor and/or City Council determine that it is in the city's best interest to reinstate the former chief to resolve litigation and/or potential litigation ... if the former chief is reinstated, city agrees to pay to employee a severance package (equivalent to 12 months of salary and benefits in effect upon the date of termination) ... or, at the option of the employee, employee may remain employed with the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department in a supervisory position of captain, if such a position can be budgeted by the City Council then in office."
Cortese was terminated in April 2006, and legal wrangling has continued since then.
About 20 citizens came to the June 11 council session in which the contract was voted on. Four council members were in attendance: Timi Keene, Brad Roberts, John Mayo, and Richard Marx.
The meeting turned controversial when Mayor Gaddis started it out by telling the citizens in the room that he intended to defer the "town hall" portion of the agenda until after the vote on the police chief's contract. That move later drew sharp criticism from many in attendance.
"Council members, you have received a copy of the employment agreement for the police chief. Do you have any comments?" Gaddis asked.
"I move that we accept the contract," Keene said.
Without any discussion, the council then approved the contract with a 3-1 vote. Keene, Roberts, and Mayo voted to approve the contract, with Marx voting against it.
"We do have three `ayes,' which makes approval of the agreement," Gaddis said.
At that point, Gaddis opened the meeting to public comments.
Clyde Knowles was the first to speak.
"Why did you jump the public comments until after the vote? To eliminate comments from the public?" an angry Knowles asked. "Why did we do that?"
Mayor Gaddis responded that it was his choice to handle the meeting that way.
Keene explained that the agenda was changed because the special session was a continuation of the June 6 meeting.
Gaddis added that the council had planned to vote on the contract during the regular June 6 council meeting, but more time was needed to review the deal.
"We decided to vote on this at the last meeting, but we got the contract in too late for everybody to absorb," Gaddis explained.
"I was going to ask some questions about the contract, but they're not valid now because you've already voted," Knowles responded. Soon after that he walked out in an apparent show of disappointment with the mayor and the council.
Another citizen, Mike Zitur, said he had questions about the contract.
"Does this contract take precedence over the Civil Service rules?" asked Zitur.
"Yes," Gaddis replied.
White Salmon resident Bob Landgren, who is a candidate for a seat on the City Council, questioned some of the points of Brending's contract.
"If Rich Cortese comes back, Bruce has the option of taking a year's wages just to walk away," Landgren said. "This is not good for the citizens of White Salmon. When you make a decision, you need to bring it out in public."
Zitur told the council members and mayor that he was disgusted by the way the meeting was handled.
"I lost a little more respect for the City Council today," Zitur said.
After the meeting, White Salmon resident Jim Randall said he was disappointed in the government of his city.
"This is the kind of thing you expect out of the federal government, not from the city of White Salmon. This is so underhanded," Randall explained.
Bingen City Council member Sandra Dickey, who attended the June 11 meeting, said the deal was too generous.
"It's like writing your own contract and getting everything you want," Dickey said.
Council member Mayo conceded that the contract is unusual, but he pointed out that was necessitated by the ongoing lawsuit with Cortese.
"We thought it was a fair contract, so we approved it," he said.
Mayo added that the council members do not run the meetings.
"That is the prerogative of the mayor," Mayo said.
Bingen Mayor Prigel agreed the contract was favorable to Brending, but pointed out there was nothing wrong with that.
"If Brending is let go without cause anytime over the next three years, he gets a year's severance pay. That's pretty good," Prigel said. "But it's expensive to get qualified people, especially given the recent issues. It's no surprise that any chief coming here would want assurances they're covered."
Prigel added that a great deal of the controversy regarding the police chief position stemmed from the reality that the former chief was not protected if the mayor wanted a new chief. This deal eliminates that concern, he noted.
"Anyone who wanted the police chief position to be covered from the whims of the mayor have certainly gotten their wish," Prigel said.
Among the stipulations in the eight-page contract is one that details that the chief can now only be terminated with the approval of the White Salmon City Council.
"To fire the chief, the city, through a majority vote of the full council and approval of the mayor, may immediately terminate this agreement for cause without giving notice to the employee," it reads.
Prigel added that he found it ironic that complaints were still coming from those who had pushed for these changes to be made.
"This lessens the mayor's role in firing the police chief. We have achieved the protections the public was asking for," Prigel explained. "We have the most qualified candidate for chief based on the testing; and the mayor can no longer fire the chief -- it requires approval of the City Council. It achieves all of the objectives of the vocal reformers."
Brending said he plans some immediate moves to upgrade the Police Department.
"The number one priority is personnel," Brending explained. "The department is budgeted for nine officers, and we have been working with five. Finding qualified candidates is a problem nationwide for law enforcement agencies. I have already requested a police officer test through the Civil Service Commission to be given as soon as possible, and we will be encouraging local citizens to apply."
Brending also will request that the city boost its compensation package to help attract and retain experienced officers.
"I am hoping the city evaluates wages for the officers and recommends an increase to attract new officers. This is especially critical and urgent as it relates to the current officers and the city's ability to keep them," he said.
Prigel said he hoped the deal with Brending puts an end to the controversy.
"I hope we can rebuild the department and get back to the quality of policing they do," Prigel said.