Sunnyside is no stranger to governmental controversy, but now the city has added confusion to its contention.
Recall that it has been almost a year since police Chief Ed Radder retired. Not long after Radder’s retirement, Deputy Police Chief Phil Schenck announced he would not put in for the chief’s job. This surprised and disappointed many in the city.
Schenck very much is a creature of Sunnyside, having grown up there and settled down there with his wife and three children. He had spent his entire career in law enforcement — totaling 23 years as he moved up the ranks — in the Sunnyside Police Department. Many in the city credited him for attacking gang activity, reducing the violent crime rate and cleaning up the city’s image. Schenck’s supporters suspected instability in City Hall prompted Schenck’s decision to eschew the Sunnyside job and pursue openings in other cities.
The instability theory is a logical one. Sunnyside has run through five city managers since 1998; the most recent one, Mark Gervasi, lasted only 18 months before leaving about the same time as Radder. There has been a lot of turnover in other top positions as well. More recently, Finance Director Teresa Hanford turned in a resignation letter on Feb. 1, only four months after she was hired.
Stepping into all this is Frank Sweet, holding the title of interim city manager since last summer and prompting controversy from the way he departed the city administrator’s job in Selah. He came to Sunnyside under a cloud — and under arrest for allegedly removing a Selah city laptop computer and city documents from his office and deleting files under his control. That issue is working its way through Yakima County Superior Court.
Matters seemed to right themselves on Monday, when Schenck announced he had changed his mind and put in for the chief’s job. But then they took a Sunnyside-style turn on Tuesday, when Schenck received a letter from Sweet, dated Jan. 30, that the deputy chief interpreted as a termination letter.
After detailing what Sweet saw as Schenck’s shortcomings in job performance and conduct, the letter reads, “While I would like to support you in your decision to leave the City, I cannot allow you to serve in your current position indefinitely as you search for another position.” Sweet follows that sentence with: “Therefore, I will allow you until February 28, 2013, to find another position. During this time you are free to use your vacation leave to assist in your job search efforts.”
Most people employing deductive reasoning and common sense would conclude that this was a termination letter, and count Schenck among them. After howls of outrage over the letter, Sweet sent a second letter that said it was all a misunderstanding.
“Let me assure that your employment has not been terminated and there was no intention to suggest that it had or would be terminated,” the second letter said. In the next paragraph: “I anticipated that you would respond to the letter by confirming your desire to leave the City and accept the City’s invitation to allow you a reasonable amount of time to focus your energies on finding other employment.” So, if Schenck is not being pushed out the door, the door at least is being held wide open. And it sure sounds like a termination to Schenck’s Yakima attorney, Gary Lofland, who is threatening legal action in the matter.
This situation goes beyond a misunderstanding; it defies understanding altogether. The City Council, which took a chance in choosing and retaining Sweet amid the issues in Selah, is likely to reassess that decision in a closed-door executive session on Monday night. The same council members who opened the door to Sweet last summer could well be the ones who show him the door — a decision that would be well justified if Sweet doesn’t come up with better answers than what he has offered up to now.
Problems remain even if Sweet is gone — just check the history leading up to Sweet’s appointment. Sunnyside then would need to come up with a city manager. Again. And Schenck would need to decide — as would any prospective police chief candidate — if he wants to work in a city with so much administrative drama. Fighting crime on the front lines is difficult enough; the chief doesn’t need to battle rear-guard action in City Hall, too.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.