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Council splits over proposed police coverage contract

Majority wants to make move

The fissures among the council members appeared early and often at last Wednesday's meeting of the White Salmon City Council.

In a new showdown related to the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department, the council split into two factions over whether the city should consider contracting for law enforcement services with the Klickitat County Sheriff's Office (KCSO) and/or the Skamania County Sheriff's Office (SCSO).

If approved by the council, a "request for proposals" would go out to those agencies, asking them to provide cost estimates and details related to taking over police coverage for the city of White Salmon.

Those who want to move forward with an RFP are in the majority, with council members Bob Landgren, Mark Peppel, and Richard Marx supporting the concept. Council members Anthony Coulter and Leana Johnson opposed the move to seek RFPs related to local police coverage.

The March 3 agenda item caught many in the community by surprise, and the meeting room was packed with about 40 citizens -- most there to blast the council for considering a process that could potentially lead to the dismantling of the local Police Department.

Before the vote, many spoke in opposition to contracting law enforcement services.

"As you are considering getting rid of the Police Department and contracting the services out, I would remind the City Council that you are representatives of the people," said White Salmon resident Richard Lyons. "You need to take into account what the will of the people is. The backlash from the people would be quite great. We need the Police Department."

Alba Bartholomew, the owner of Chips Bar & Grill in Bingen, pointed out that response times were critical, and he worried that county officers would not be able to be as responsive.

"Sometimes we need police and we need them two minutes ago," Bartholomew explained. "You have local policemen who live in the local area. The police know the people and have a feel for the local area. You don't get that if you have someone in Goldendale. It frightens me to think you'd contract out the Police Department."

Council member Mark Peppel, who asked that consideration of the RFP be placed on the agenda, defended the process.

"Everyone thinks we're here to get rid of the Police Department tonight. This is a vicious rumor, and I don't appreciate it," Peppel said. "This came up as a budget item to save money. We have streets falling apart. The police budget is going to be $1 million next year. If we can contract with KCSO to save money -- that was it. Not to fire anybody. Everybody here shops for bids on cars, or for insurance. You look around from time to time. There is nothing wrong with that."

Council member Richard Marx agreed.

"We are representatives of the people," Marx said. "As far as the notion that we're trying to take away police protection, that's not it at all. It's about budgeting. We're trying to find out if we get what we pay for."

"We have a tight budget with no reserves," added council member Bob Landgren. "We have to be fiscally responsible. We have to cut where we can. It's not cutting the Police Department, it's looking at the budget."

However, council member Leana Johnson, who chairs both the city Finance/Audit Committee and the Budget Committee, pointed out that the idea of possibly contracting for law enforcement services was never brought up in her committees.

"I'm hesitant to go forward if we can't do it for any less, and if the response times are not what we have now," Johnson said. "Also, I don't want the agencies that would have to research and respond to this have to spend their time on it."

Johnson added that it was too early to vote on the question of whether an RFP is a good idea.

"It should go to committee first," Johnson said.

Council member Coulter said he strongly objected to the proposal because he believed it was targeted against Police Chief Bruce Brending.

"From a strictly rational standpoint, sure more information is good," Coulter said of the proposal. "But when I first heard of this idea from another council member, it was presented as a way to do away with the Police Department as we know it. This carries the mark of a personal grudge. I can't support an action that was started that way. And I'm very concerned with a council consumed in what seems to be ulterior motives."

It remains unclear whether the city of Bingen -- which currently contracts with White Salmon for police coverage -- would be on its own for law enforcement services if a deal between White Salmon and one of the sheriff's departments is struck.

Representatives from the city of Bingen made clear they have no interest in contracting with an outside agency.

Bingen Mayor Betty Barnes, who attended the March 3 meeting, said she believes the proposal is misguided.

"I don't support this," Barnes said. "I understand it. It's your duty to look at prices, and you have to do what you have to do. But by no means do I support contracting with the county. Bingen has been there before, and it's not what our citizens are after."

KCSO Sheriff Rick McComas attended White Salmon's council meeting. When he was asked to comment on possibly taking over law enforcement coverage for White Salmon, McComas advised the council to proceed with caution before deciding whether to go forward.

"Should your committee inquire, I'm happy to work with them. But I caution you to move very slowly," McComas said. "It's not inappropriate to look into costs, especially in the economic situation we're in. But I don't believe I'm going to save you any money."

McComas pointed out that the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department provides effective police coverage and rapid response times, and he did not believe his deputies could provide that level of service at less cost.

"Residents of White Salmon pay taxes and should be receiving a certain level of law enforcement," McComas explained. "In the city, the response time is a minute or two. In the county, it might be 20 minutes."

"My idea would actually be to have officers assigned to White Salmon," Marx said.

"I would assign officers to the city," McComas responded. "But KCSO is a county agency. If there is a county call, they have to respond. If it comes to a deputy needing backup [elsewhere in the county], I'd demand they stay and work through the issues there."

McComas added that the issue was extremely complicated, with many different layers involved.

"We couldn't begin to discuss it tonight," he said.

At first, there was a motion to refer the issue to the Bingen-White Salmon Joint Police Committee for more study. However, Bingen Mayor Barnes said she thought that was inappropriate.

"This is White Salmon that wants to look at this, not Bingen. I don't believe the Joint Police Committee is the place for this," Barnes said.

As a result of Barnes' statement, the original motion was withdrawn and reworded instead to send it to the White Salmon Human Resources Committee, chaired by Bob Landgren.

The vote to refer it to committee passed 3-2, with Marx, Peppel, and Landgren in support, and Johnson and Coulter opposed.

After the vote, Police Chief Brending said he was disappointed in the council's action.

"You have a right to a better deal if it's out there, but you won't find a better deal or more dedicated officers," Brending said. "Sure, you can write an RFP to save a lot of money. But be honest with the citizens. If you're going to do it, make sure the RFP clarifies you have 24-7 coverage. The citizens are concerned that if you do an RFP, the Police Department won't be here. That would mean a lack of response times and a lack of say in how things are done. You lose control of the Police Department when you go with a contractor."

Toward the end of the meeting, BWSPD Sgt. Jim Andring addressed the council, urging them to drop the idea of contracting with the Sheriff's Office.

"It's to the point where I'm wondering if you're going to contact with the Goldendale Fire Department to provide fire coverage here," Andring said. "The Klickitat County Sheriff's Office is a very good department, but the reality is they are different. We can offer services they can't. The two departments are apples and oranges by design. This is not a good deal. Even looking into it is basically a waste of time."

Not everyone agreed with Andring's perspective, however. One local citizen, Adrian Bradford, thanked the council for looking into ways to possibly save the city some money.

"I want to thank all the council members for standing up. Some of us are proud you're doing your job," said Bradford.


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