In an effort to finally resolve lingering legal issues regarding the termination of former Police Chief Rich Cortese, the city of White Salmon is considering creating a new position for the ex-chief. In exchange, Cortese would drop all legal claims against the city.
The roots of the case go back to June 2004, when then-Mayor Linda Jones hired Rich Cortese to serve as police chief of the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department. In April 2006, after the 2005 election of a new mayor, Roger Holen, Cortese was terminated.
Since that time, the circumstances around Cortese's termination have been the subject of litigation. A Klickitat County Superior Court case -- Richard P. Cortese vs. City of White Salmon -- remains unsettled.
The city is preparing a "settlement of claims and mutual release" to settle the lawsuit "and forever resolve matters concerning Cortese's termination and the lawsuit."
At last week's meeting of the White Salmon City Council, Mayor David Poucher and the city's attorney, Ken Woodrich, presented three possible ways for the city to extricate itself from a potentially damaging jury trial.
A special public hearing is scheduled for the evening of April 10. Mayor Poucher said he wants the citizens of the community to "see all the options laid out" and help the city decide which course is best to follow.
"It's the city of White Salmon that has to solve this problem," Poucher said. "We won't make a decision without listening to you (the public) first."
Woodrich said he had spent a great deal of time reviewing the case and trying to figure out how the city could resolve it.
"I've worked on very little else," Woodrich said.
One of the three options under consideration is to go to court and let a jury hear the case.
"I have taken a look at the case, and on many levels it's better to settle it," Woodrich explained. "If we continue to litigate, and if we win, the city would owe nothing and he (Cortese) would not get his job back. That's one possibility."
But Woodrich pointed out there is never any sure way to read what a jury might decide.
"You never know until you're sitting there and get a jury's verdict -- and even then, that verdict can be appealed," Woodrich said. "Meanwhile, the city is continuing to pay legal fees. This case is probably going to trial unless we do something about it."
A second option under discussion would be to create a new position for Cortese. The position would be "director of public safety," and would pay him about $72,000 per year. The contract for Cortese to serve in the position would expire after 20 months.
In addition to the salary, Cortese would receive $80,000 in back pay from the time he was terminated as police chief.
Under this scenario, current Bingen-White Salmon Police Chief Bruce Brending would remain in his job.
"That preserves the status quo and preserves the Police Department as best we can," said Woodrich.
The third option would be to buy out the contract of Police Chief Brending. Under this option, Cortese would be installed as the city's police chief, while Brending would be moved over to serve in a new position of captain.
However, if this is the choice the city makes, Brending has the contractual right to opt out and receive one year's pay, plus benefits. City officials said Brending's payout would be in the range of $90,000-$100,000.
"After a great deal of study and work, these options are what we've come up with," Poucher said.
During the council meeting, Mayor Poucher asked the council to create the position of director of public safety so it would be available if that is the option subsequently selected.
"We have to create the position tonight to get it to kick in by April 15," Poucher explained. "That opens options for next week."
If the option that calls for the city to hire Cortese as public safety director is not chosen, the position would not be filled.
"If we hire Cortese in that position, he would report to the mayor and have no subordinates below him. Also, he would have patrol functions about one-third of the time," said Woodrich. "He wants to make his position valuable to the city. He does not want a free ride."
Woodrich added that Cortese's certification as a police officer expires on April 15 -- next Tuesday -- so he would have to be hired before then.
"If not, he'd have to go back to school -- that would be more cost to the city," Woodrich pointed out.
According to Woodrich, Cortese is seeking to maintain his law enforcement qualifications so he can qualify for his pension.
Woodrich also noted that the city's insurance carrier is offering to give the city $25,000 to help mitigate the cost of the settlement with Cortese.
City Council members are expected to decide which course to follow after the April 10 public hearing.
"My hope is the council will come to a decision after hearing the public testimony. I don't envy them being put in that position," Woodrich said. "But they are a very hard working, best-intentioned group, and I think they'll make a good decision, whatever it might be. Not everybody is going to like the decision, no matter which way it goes. But I'm happy it's all being brought before the public."
Several citizens raised a key question that is yet to be fully answered: Was Cortese offered the police chief's job back? If so, why did he not accept that offer then?
"There is no consensus on what happened at that time," Woodrich said. "That is an item of fact that would have to be determined at a trial. I'll reserve comment about that for the courts."
White Salmon resident Don Tackley said it was his understanding that Cortese was offered the job.
"More than a year ago he was offered the job back and didn't take that opportunity," Tackley said.
In August 2006, in a bid to end the legal impasse, the White Salmon City Council voted 4-0 to offer Cortese reinstatement as the city's police chief. According to Francis Gaddis, who was serving as interim mayor at that time, Cortese was given 60 days to accept or reject the reinstatement.
However, at the end of the 60-day period, there was no definitive outcome.
Woodrich said the facts were not clear on that issue.
"There may have been conditions with that offer that might not have been revealed," Woodrich responded.
Shirley Cox, chair of the city's budget committee, said she had major reservation about the cost to the city of creating another salaried position.
"This has not gone through any budget committee hearings yet, and I'm real reluctant to see this fast-tracked," Cox explained. "Our 2008 budget was skeletal at best. We have no money."
Cox added that cities that have a position of director of public safety are generally much larger than White Salmon.
"We simply don't have the money," warned Jaci Dietsch, a member of the city's budget committee. "If we cut any more from the Fire Department or the Police Department or our street budget, we will no longer be able to offer any services. This is very difficult, knowing where we stand fiscally as a city. To create a new job is hard for me to accept."
Poucher said the city had no good options, but some might prove to be much worse than others.
"We were dealt this hand. We have to deal with it," explained Poucher. "The money for this will probably come from inter-fund loans, unless someone has a money tree. If we go to a jury and lose, it would probably bankrupt the city."
White Salmon citizen Richard Lyons said he was upset that the city was considering creating the new position, and warned of political consequences.
"If jobs or money are cut from the Police Department, you will have furious community members pounding on the door," Lyons said. "Just as the last mayor and council members were removed by recall and elections, so too can this mayor and council be removed."
Lyons noted that the Police Department is already understaffed.
"To create a job for someone out of the Fire Department's or Police Department's budget, that's incorrect and unfair and shouldn't happen," Lyons said. "Don't compound the mistakes a previous administration made. There is no reason there should be any time this city is without police coverage."
Council member Timi Keene asked if there was a job description that describes what the specifics of the new job would be, and asked whether the city's insurance carrier had put its promise of $25,000 in writing.
"We're being asked to make a decision on a wing and a prayer based on facts we don't have yet," Keene said.
Poucher explained that the alternative might well be much worse.
"We can either have a huge expense hanging over our heads, or a known expense right now. It's depending on how badly you want to gamble," Poucher said.
"The insurance carrier is telling us to settle," added Woodrich. "They want it settled, so they're offering money to help."
Council members Bob Landgren and Leana Johnson voted to approve creation of the new position for Cortese, while Keene voted in opposition.
Council members Brad Roberts and Richard Marx were absent.
Poucher said he believed holding a public hearing before making a final decision was the right way to go.
"This public hearing is something we feel very positive about," Poucher said. "We want government run under a clear blue sky. The appropriate thing to do is to bring this to the people."