Rich Cortese, former chief of the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department, will soon be working for the city of White Salmon again.
Following an intense public hearing last Thursday evening, the White Salmon City Council voted 4-1 to hire Cortese to serve in a newly created "director of public safety" position.
In return, Cortese will drop all legal claims against the city stemming from his April 2006 termination as chief. Cortese had challenged the termination as unlawful, and a lawsuit against the city has been pending for months.
The special Thursday session, which was packed with about 80 citizens, was set up specifically to hear from the public regarding how they wanted the city to resolve the situation with Cortese and with the lawsuit.
The city was considering three possible options to resolve the Cortese case: Option 1: Let the case proceed to court and let the city take its chances with a jury; Option 2: hire Cortese to be the city's public safety director over the next 20 months in exchange for an end to any and all legal claims against the city; and Option 3: bring Cortese back as police chief, and pay current Police Chief Bruce Brending a substantial severance package equal to one-year's salary and benefits.
Mayor David Poucher invited Cortese's attorney, Bill Eling, to address the council and the public first.
Eling said he supported Option 2.
"It offers value, certainty, and fairness," Eling explained. "First of all, the city is not buying him out and he just walks away -- the city would be buying his services. There is value to the city. Second, there is certainty for Rich -- he will get his full retirement, and the city also has certainty. Its costs are capped and you can plan for them. And it gives the Police Department certainty as well. Third, Option 2 is fair. I believe Rich was not treated fairly. He woke up one day and found out he was discharged for no particular reason; just because the appointing authority decided he could do so. This put a cloud over him. By settling this case as proposed, it has an element of fairness."
White Salmon's attorney, Ken Woodrich, pointed out that if Option 2 was adopted by the council, it would mean the city would have a complete release from any possible lawsuits related to this case.
"It's a final settlement," Woodrich said.
Bingen-White Salmon Police Chief Bruce Brending -- who was chosen for the chief's job after Cortese's termination -- said he too supported the city taking Option 2 to resolve the ongoing legal case.
"Speaking as the leader of the Police Department and its officers, for the benefit of the community and the department, I respectfully ask the council to explore and accept the settlement option," Brending said. "I am recommending that the council accept this offer. Myself and the officers will fully support this decision."
Brending dismissed concerns that there would be tensions between the two men if Cortese were to be hired in a new role.
"There's a lot of water under the bridge, but Rich and I had a decent relationship before and I hope to re-establish that," Brending explained. "And closure will help us get staff and keep staff."
Lance Stryker, a representative of the White Salmon Fire Department, said the department's firefighters had voted to support hiring Cortese as public safety director.
"The membership does support Option 2, and will work with Mr. Cortese on this matter," said Stryker. Stryker was representing the Fire Department at the meeting because Fire Chief Bill Hunsaker was away on vacation in Europe.
Many citizens spoke during the public comment session of the meeting, and most seemed supportive of hiring Cortese in a new role.
Mike Zitur, who has been a strong supporter of Cortese since he began serving as police chief, urged the council to bring Cortese back in the public safety director position.
"It was very unjust what happened to Rich," Zitur said. "Option 2 is a good and viable option. Let's put an end to this and move forward from here."
Jaci Dietsch, a member of the city's budget committee, warned the council members about the fiscal ramifications of hiring Cortese. She pointed out there was no reason to make an "instant decision," and urged the council to wait to get more specific details about the deal.
However, Dietsch added that she recognized that if the case went to a jury, the city might stand to lose even more.
"As a responsible member of the budget committee, I'd say go with Option 2," Dietsch said. "But on a personal level, I'd like to see us go to court."
Another citizen asked whether the city had a good probability of winning in court.
"A case like this would be difficult to try," Woodrich responded. "We could potentially get tripped up over the equities in the case. There is the suggestion that the way this came about was unfair to Mr. Cortese. That's not the best position to be in."
Sandi Dickey, a member of Bingen City Council, reminded White Salmon's council members that Bingen would be contributing some of the cost of having Cortese on staff.
"Option 2 is best, and best for Bingen too," Dickey said.
Elmer Kinder urged that no more money be taken out of the budgets for the police or fire departments.
"I don't want to see any cuts in the Police Department or Fire Department as a result of this," Kinder said. "Why take money from these departments and make it worse than it already is?"
Mayor Poucher said that would not be the case.
"The police budget remains the same," Poucher said. "We will increase the budget to the amount it takes to bring Cortese back."
According to Poucher, the city has about $600,000 in its reserve fund that the city can borrow from over the next two years.
Jan Brending, Bingen's city administrator, pointed out that no matter which option was chosen, White Salmon would be facing costs.
"If this goes to court, the city might very well win two or three or four years from now," Brending explained. "But in the meantime, the city has to pay up front, and there might have to be multiple attorneys hired. The reality is, if you do any one of these options, it is going to impact the city. There is not an option that is not going to cost any department some level of funding."
Another local resident, John Wilcox, offered a businessman's perspective: He said Option 2 was clearly the best choice.
"If I were sitting down with my lawyer and accountant, I would certainly take Option 2. Why would you take a 50-50 deal when you can have a sure thing?" Wilcox said. "If in the worst-case scenario you lose in court and end up paying $1 million, what does that do to your insurance rates? You're not just paying the $1 million, but also your rates will skyrocket."
Public Works Director Mike Wellman pointed out there were hidden costs in the ongoing legal fight.
"We need time from the mayor and the attorney to work on various projects, but they are tied up with this case," he explained. "Delays like that cost also. It's not just in real dollars, but lost access to get work done."
Woodrich added that Cortese would bring a tangible benefit to the community.
"He is a 28-year law enforcement officer with a lot of experience in a lot of areas. There are real advantages in having someone with his qualifications filling that position," Woodrich explained.
White Salmon resident Clyde Knowles said Option 2 made sense.
"This is the finest solution we've come up with," he said. "I definitely think we better accept this proposition and get it over with. We don't need to do any more gambling. Let's clear this matter up."
After the public comments, Woodrich advised the council members as to what they would need to do depending on which option they selected.
"If you adopt Option 1, we just continue on as we have been with the legal work," Woodrich said. "Option 2 would require creation of the public safety director's position. Option 3 is to put Cortese in Brending's position -- but I haven't heard anybody support that."
One by one, the council members expressed their opinions.
"I'm impressed by the mayor," said Brad Roberts. "He has brought an opportunity for closure in three and a half months."
Bob Landgren also praised the mayor and the city's attorney.
"I appreciate Ken's hard work, and the mayor's," Landgren said. "I'd like to see closure and see the city move forward to a new White Salmon, where we all work together."
Leana Johnson said Option 2 was likely to be the best possible outcome of the case.
"Everyone worked hard to get the best deal all around and get what's best for everyone," she explained.
Richard Marx offered his view succinctly: "I like Option 2," he said.
When her turn came, council member Timi Keene raised several concerns.
"I would really like to support the settlement," Keene said. "However, we need hard and fast numbers. This is not a budget, and this does not look at ancillary costs and does not look at 2009. I'd like to see a special budget meeting before we decide this."
At that point, Landgren made a motion to accept the ordinance to create the public safety director's position, and Marx seconded the motion.
The vote to approve the new position was 4-1, with Keene the sole vote in opposition.
After the meeting, Mayor Poucher expressed optimism and relief about the outcome.
"I think we are really on the road to putting this behind us," Poucher said. "I'm tickled to death that Chief Brending supported this. That shows his professionalism, and the rank and file of the Fire Department -- they stepped up too. I thought Eling's speech was almost like the Gettysburg Address -- short but very eloquent."
Poucher added that he was glad the council didn't wait.
"What would waiting accomplish for us? The alternatives would remain the same," Poucher said.
Keene said the council moved before getting all the relevant information.
"Once again, the City Council is being asked to make a decision without all the budget or job description information," Keene explained. "I am particularly concerned about the long term effects to our emergency services' budgets -- this isn't just a budgetary matter lasting 20 months."
Poucher said he hoped the deal with Cortese would be finalized soon.
"I'd like to have Rich on board by the first of May," Poucher said.
After the vote, Cortese expressed his appreciation to the City Council and local citizens.
"It feels great," he said. "I'm very appreciative and humbled by the continued support I have received from the community for the past two years. The way the townspeople have supported me -- wow. I'm glad I'm able to go back and work for them. I love this town and want to be a part of its future."
Cortese noted that he does not have to take time to find a place to live in the area.
"I still have my house in Bingen," he explained. "I never sold it. My goal was always to come back to work here to finish my law enforcement career in the town where it first began."
Cortese started as a patrol officer with the White Salmon Police Department in February 1978. He worked here for about two and a half years before transferring elsewhere.
Cortese added that he does not anticipate any friction working with Police Chief Brending.
"We are both professional people, and we had a really good working relationship before," Cortese pointed out.
Eling said he was impressed by the response from the city's residents.
"I have a soft spot in my heart for White Salmon," Eling said. "The people stood up for Rich. It's not like the back-stabbing you get used to seeing in the big city."