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Council Clears Way For Ex-Chief Cortese's Return

In special session

Although a bit of wordsmithing remains on the paperwork, the White Salmon City Council has put the final touches on the deal that will bring former Bingen-White Salmon Police Chief Rich Cortese back in a new role.In a special council meeting on the evening of April 23, the council members approved three measures that cleared the way for Cortese's return to White Salmon as its new director of public safety.

"The council basically approved everything," said White Salmon Mayor David Poucher. "We'd like to bring him in on May 1. All the paperwork on the city's side is all signed; we're just waiting for the state's Department of Retirement Systems to OK his retirement plan."

Cortese, hired as police chief in June 2004, had about two years to go to get his full retirement package when he was terminated by then-Mayor Roger Holen in April 2006.

Cortese filed a lawsuit alleging unlawful termination, and legal wrangling between Cortese and the city of White Salmon has continued until this month. The contract the City Council approved will end the threat of legal action or a financial judgment against the city.

In exchange, the city is giving Cortese a 20-month contract to serve as the city's director of public safety.

According to a draft version of the job description for the newly created position, Cortese will serve as a "commissioned law enforcement officer employed ... to enforce the criminal laws of the state of Washington, and whose job duties substantially involve both police and fire duties," the summary read. "The director ... may administer other programs and personnel within the scope and responsibilities of his position as directed by the mayor."

In a series of three votes, the council approved the final job description for the position, the settlement agreement, and the specific employment contract for Cortese.

In each decision, the vote was 4-1, with council member Timi Keene in opposition.

"We read all the contracts and voted on them," said council member Richard Marx. "It's at the point where it's ready to move forward."

Keene said there were five reasons behind her "no" votes on the city's deal with Cortese.

"There was no budget; no definitive word from the Department of Retirement Systems regarding the position's qualifying for LEOFF benefits; this supercedes the city's personnel policies for exempt employees; forthcoming changes to what was presented for a vote; and the position's supervisory role over the Fire Department," Keene explained.

Keene added that she believed the council needed more information before signing off on the deal.

"The decision to end the lawsuit may very well have been a good one, but to make that decision, the council needs facts," Keene said. "Without knowing the actual costs this year, the next, or however long it will take the city to possibly pay back an interfund loan or the taxpayers to pay additional taxes, it becomes a vote `at any cost.' In fact, there were additional unknown costs added at the time of the vote."

Marx said the council was taking wise action on behalf of the city, and questioned why Keene opposed the deal.

"I'm glad to see that four out of five on the City Council want to do what's best for the city," Marx commented. "We're doing what has to be done. This is the best option."

Mayor Poucher said Cortese will have an office at the Pioneer Center building.

"Everything is ready to go," Poucher said. "The (Klickitat County) sheriff is providing a computer and an office there. As far as I know, everybody is happy, we're just waiting for the state's OK of the retirement plan. I haven't talked to Rich since the meeting, but everything the city can possibly do is done."

Marx praised the city's new attorney, Ken Woodrich, for his work to resolve the legal snarl.

"We're getting better advice now than we have in the last 10 years," Marx said.

"We're looking forward to having Rich come back," Poucher said. "There are a lot of things he can do. We'll give him a full plate of good hard work he can be doing for the city."

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