SUNNYSIDE — So now it seems Sunnyside’s embattled deputy police chief has not been fired after all.
Never really was, according to a new memo from his boss.
Confusion has now joined anger in this city known for power struggles and turnover.
“This thing is a mess,” City Councilman Don Vlieger said Thursday.
Just three days ago, police officers, elected officials, residents, business owners and Deputy Police Chief Phil Schenck himself all believed that Frank Sweet, interim city manager, had fired the longtime second in command of the force. Public reaction ranged from shock to calls for Sweet to be fired in retaliation.
No one is sure what to believe now.
“Hopefully we can figure out what the heck is going on here,” said Councilman Jim Restucci.
Sweet has not returned repeated phone or email messages all week.
However, the city on Thursday released two letters he wrote to Schenck regarding the deputy chief’s job. The first memo, dated Jan. 30, included language that led Schenck and others to believe he was out.
“I cannot allow you to serve in your current position indefinitely as you search for another position,” it read.
“Therefore, I will allow you until February 28, 2013, to find another position.”
Schenck received it Tuesday morning. City staff did not reply to formal requests by the Yakima Herald-Republic asking for a copy until Thursday.
The second memo claimed it was all a misunderstanding:
“It has come to my attention that you misinterpreted my January 30, 2013 letter to mean that the City has terminated your employment. Let me assure you that your employment has not been terminated and there was no intention to suggest that it had or would be terminated,” Sweet wrote.
The letter goes on to claim that Sweet meant he was giving Schenck until Feb. 28 to find another job without interference or disciplinary measures.
Schenck said Thursday he has not spoken to Sweet in the wake of either memo and has been seeking the help of an attorney.
The debate goes back to spring last year when both Chief Ed Radder and City Manager Mark Gervasi retired.
The city hired Sweet on an interim basis as city manager.
Schenck, 46, did not apply for the chief’s vacancy in Sunnyside but did in cities elsewhere in the state. Last week, he reversed and threw his hat in the ring for the Sunnyside job, saying Monday that community encouragement changed his mind.
The issue may come down to an argument over semantics.
The first letter does not contain the word “termination,” and Restucci admitted that Sweet never used that word during their phone conversation Tuesday, he said. Sweet made similar phone calls that day to all council members.
“Maybe this was an assumption on the part of council,” Restucci said. “I kind of feel like I’m in good company and I normally don’t assume anything.”
Vlieger remembered his conversation with Sweet as more black and white. “Frank (Sweet) told me he was terminated as of the 28th of February.”
Upon learning the news of Schenck’s supposed termination, Vlieger told Sweet on the phone that a majority of the council would side with him to fire Sweet if it came to a vote, Vlieger said in a phone interview Thursday.
However, he said he did not hinge the statement on Schenck but on an overall lack of confidence in the interim city manager.
“I have none,” he said.
Vlieger said he began losing confidence in Sweet during last fall’s budget discussions when Sweet proposed cutting officers from the police force, contracting an outside agency for dispatch service and demoting Schenck to sergeant as cost-saving measures. The council ended up passing a budget that left one detective position unfilled but left Schenck’s position and a dispatcher intact.
Vlieger also has been one of Schenck’s biggest supporters, largely crediting him for the city’s drop in crime rates over the past two years.
At Monday’s upcoming meeting, Vlieger said he expects the council to discuss Sweet’s abilities in a closed-door executive session.
Council members Theresa Hancock, Craig Hicks and Jason Raines said they also were confused by the terminology, partially because they had spoken to Sweet on the phone and heard complaints about the “firing” from residents before they had a chance to read the memo themselves.
“It was all very unclear and muddled to me,” Hicks said. However, he added he believed the first memo did not mean a firing when he finally read it Tuesday night.
Raines thought the opposite, believing Schenck was indeed fired.
“I don’t see how you read it any other way.”
In Sunnyside’s council-manager form of government, the city manager hires and fires employees, while the council passes policy, sets budgets and oversees the manager.
“It is a personnel item and I’m not going to go there,” said Mayor Mike Farmer, when asked to comment.
Tuesday, Councilman Nick Paulakis told the Yakima Herald-Republic he was angry about Schenck being let go, but on Thursday declined comment until he could speak to Sweet himself.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that all City Council members spoke on the topic.
• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.