SUNNYSIDE — Frank Sweet sat silently during lengthy public criticism here Monday night and was just as quiet when the Sunnyside City Council voted 4-2 to fire him as interim city manager after a whirlwind of controversy over longtime Deputy Police Chief Phil Schenck.
Without a word, he stood up, shook hands with Councilwoman Theresa Hancock and walked out the front door as a standing-room-only crowd parted.
Just like that, this city of 15,000 is without a top administrator again. Adding more instability, Mayor Mike Farmer resigned.
“In my opinion this is a lose-lose,” Farmer said. “I’m going to resign my position as mayor. I’m going to resign my position as councilman.”
Monday’s changes mark the latest scene in a city where political drama and shakeups have become the norm. Sunnyside has had five “permanent” city managers since 1998. Some lasted less than two years, while numerous other lower level administrators have come and gone.
Sweet has fallen under intense public criticism for his handling of the conflict with Schenck. Last week, Sweet gave Schenck a letter that appeared to fire him, then rescinded it, saying it was a misunderstanding.
About 100 people crammed the council chambers Monday night, many taking the podium to support Schenck and call for Sweet’s termination.
Schenck also spoke, calling Sweet’s actions “dishonest” and accusing him of distrusting police officers and making their jobs “difficult.”
Schenck’s most specific criticism, however, came when he described Sweet personally confirming in a face-to-face meeting that the first letter was indeed a termination.
“So I asked, ‘So you’re letting me go?’” Schenck said of the conversation. “He responded, ‘Yes I am.’”
Many spectators defied Farmer’s requests to hold applause and gave Schenck, a Sunnyside native, a standing ovation.
The council made the decision to fire Sweet after about 45 minutes of closed-door executive session talks.
Jason Raines, Don Vlieger, Nick Paulakis and Craig Hicks voted in favor of the termination. Jim Restucci and Hancock voted against. Farmer did not vote.
The council appointed Fire Chief Aaron Markham as an interim replacement for Sweet. Vlieger told the audience they may find another interim manager within a few days.
The council also chose Restucci as the new mayor and left Vlieger as deputy mayor.
In Sunnyside’s council-manager form of government, voters elect seven council members to set policy and pass budgets, while the council selects a mayor from among their ranks to facilitate meetings. The manager runs the day-to-day operations of the city and has the authority to hire and fire employees.
Markham, who accepted the post with hesitation, said Schenck’s position is still up in the air.
“I’ll have to have a little bit of time to think about that,” Markham said in an interview after the meeting. “Right now I’m not prepared to make a decision.”
Schenck, who called the community support “humbling,” said he will continue to apply for the chief’s post.
The crowd in the chambers — at least the ones who took the microphone — overwhelmingly supported Schenck.
“I do not want him to go,” pleaded Guadalupe Rodriguez, a 17-year-old Sunnyside High School student and Police Explorer who could barely reach the microphone.
The speakers also took aim at Sweet, describing him with words like “bully” and “man of minimal integrity,” calling last week’s supposed firing of Schenck “notorious.” They urged — one man “begged” — the City Council to fire him.
“If we can’t find somebody better, I’ll do the job,” said Dan Santos. The crowd defied Farmer’s pleas to hold applause.
Only one person, Trish Combs, advocated a middle ground, asking both men to stay at the city and attempt to iron out their differences.
“They both have love for the community,” she said from the podium. In a follow-up interview, she said the city government has a tendency to react to pressure.
“People don’t take the initiative to work things out,” said Combs, a member of the city’s parks and recreation commission.
The crowd’s ire toward Sweet belied more nuanced attitudes in the community. Sweet had supporters, too, just as Schenck had detractors. Council member Hancock said those people did not speak Monday.
“It’s probably not a very good day for Sunnyside,” said Hancock, who bemoaned delays in city projects, such as selling or developing unused land purchased from an old feedlot and revitalizing downtown.
Raines, who made the motion to fire Sweet, said he worked with the city’s contracted attorney last week and over the weekend to draft a resolution for the termination.
Time was important, he said.
“We’re in a situation where I don’t have any confidence in Mr. Sweet,” he said.
Council members up until recently had unanimously supported Sweet, the former city supervisor in Selah until a new mayor took office there in January 2012 and forced him out.
In August, just as the council was ready to offer him the permanent post, Sweet was arrested and charged in Yakima County Superior Court with allegedly stealing Selah city equipment and destroying public records. The City Council voted unanimously to let Sweet keep the interim job while his court case played out.
Problems between Schenck and Sweet go back to last spring, when both Chief Ed Radder and City Manager Mark Gervasi retired roughly at the same time.
The city tapped Sweet as an interim replacement and asked Schenck to manage the police department, though his title never changed.
Schenck, 46, who grew up in Sunnyside and spent his entire 23-year career there, has long aspired to be a police chief. However, he did not apply for Radder’s vacancy right away, though he did seek chief positions in other cities throughout the state.
The last week in January, he changed his mind and put in for the Sunnyside spot.
Within a few days, Schenck received a letter from Sweet that he and several council members interpreted as a termination. Two days after that, he received another letter from the interim manager saying the deputy chief had not really been fired but merely warned not to spend any more city time seeking another job.
Meanwhile, Yakima attorney Gary Lofland, representing Schenck, challenged the termination based on civil service rules and the sincerity of Sweet’s second letter, claiming it was only a misunderstanding.
• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.