SUNNYSIDE — Deputy Police Chief Phil Schenck was fired Tuesday, the day after he applied for the post of chief at the Sunnyside Police Department.
City officials — including Schenck — were mum about what transpired and why, but on Tuesday, interim City Manger Frank Sweet sent a letter to the agency’s longtime second-in-command informing him his last day would be Feb. 28.
Schenck — a 23-year veteran of the force credited in some circles for reducing the city’s crime rate and cleaning up its image — had for months insisted he wasn’t interested in the top job. But he publicly confirmed Monday that he had changed his mind, saying he had been encouraged by community members. The chief’s post has been vacant for nearly a year.
Schenck’s ouster is already creating political waves in a city with a history of management turnover and bickering among elected officials. Some council members, many of whom support Schenck, reportedly have discussed firing Sweet in retaliation, said Councilman Jim Restucci. But he said he would not support such an action.
“It seems like every time we take a few steps forward, we take a few steps back,” said Restucci, a former mayor.
Sweet did not return multiple phone messages or emails, and city staff would not release the letter. Anna Bullock, the city’s human resources director, called it a personnel matter and referred questions to Sweet. City Council members had copies but declined to disclose them for the same reasons.
Schenck also would not share a copy of the letter but said he intends to contest the termination and is contacting an attorney. Schenck is not represented by a union but is protected by civil service rules that stipulate supervisors may not fire or discipline an officer without cause.
“I don’t believe he has cause,” said Schenck.
Schenck, a former Army National Guard second lieutenant and a married father of three, grew up in Sunnyside and spent his entire law enforcement career working up the ranks.
He holds a masters degree from City University in business administration leadership and has attended the FBI academy in Virginia. His office is adorned with dozens of certificates from different law enforcement courses, as well as crayon thank-you notes from school children and churches.
Community members and some elected officials had hoped he would be promoted to chief after Ed Radder retired last March. Schenck’s title never changed but he had been filling in, receiving a 5 percent bump in pay for part of the last year. Schenck had said long before Sweet became city manager that he had always wanted to be a police chief, especially in his hometown.
“I’ve served in Sunnyside for 23 years and I’ve served it well,” he said. “My hope was to continue to serve.”
However, he declined to apply for this opening for months after Sweet was named last spring. He has been a candidate for chief positions in other cities, including Prosser, Oak Harbor and Poulsbo, but was not hired.
Last week, he changed his mind and applied after all, confirming it to the Yakima Herald-Republic on Monday. He was one of five candidates for the job.
His sudden termination came as a “shock” to officers and staff on duty, said Detective Rob Layman, president of the Sunnyside Police Officers Guild.
The termination letter is the latest, and one of the most surprising, changes at the top in Sunnyside, where five city managers who were supposed to be permanent have come and gone since 1998.
Sweet is not guaranteed his position, either. He has been the interim manager since Mark Gervasi retired about the same time as Radder last March. The City Council had just decided to negotiate with him for a permanent post when Sweet was arrested in August and charged in Yakima County Superior Court for allegedly stealing and destroying public documents in his final days at his last job as supervisor of the city of Selah. He denies the charges.
Other senior administrators have seen a revolving door. The latest is Teresa Hanford, the finance director who started in October. She turned in a resignation letter Feb. 1, but when asked Tuesday, declined to say why.
In Sunnyside’s council-manager form of government, Sweet has the sole authority to make personnel decisions, while the council holds the budget strings and approves contracts.
Restucci and Councilwoman Theresa Hancock declined to say whether or not they agreed with the termination.
“It’s a personnel action and the city manager has RCWs empowering him to do that ...” said Hancock. “I’m allowing the man to do his job.”
Restucci said he likes Schenck, even served with him in the National Guard, but didn’t want to second-guess Sweet.
“I also think it’s wrong to hold the city manager hostage with his job if he does something I don’t agree with,” he said.
Council member Nick Paulakis didn’t advocate any action, but was angry about Sweet’s decision.
“The city manager called me and told me,” he said. “I then told him that I’m not happy about it.”
Paulakis said he plans to discuss the issue with the entire Council at the next meeting, 6:30 p.m. Monday.
Paulakis and many people in the community partially credit Schenck for putting a dent in a violent crime problem, cutting the rate of shootings by more than half between 2010 and 2011. Partly at Schenck’s urging, the city bolstered officer ranks, hired a crime analyst and created a dedicated gang unit.
“Here we have a deputy chief has been doing the chief’s work, who has cut crime, who has cut back on the gang issues, who has made the city safer, who has done all these things ... I don’t understand how this could happen,” he said.
Scott Orate, a police officer who late last year left the Sunnyside Police Department for a new position in Pasco, said in an email to Sweet that Schenck has been a model community servant.
“Growing up here and giving 20-plus years of law enforcement service to this city is the definition of service,” Orate wrote. “Now you want to throw him out like a refuse removal service.”
• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.