SUNNYSIDE — The Sunnyside City Council will discuss interim City Manager Frank Sweet’s job performance in an executive session Monday, fallout from Sweet’s firing and then unfiring of a popular police administrator, which had the community in an uproar for the past week.
Events on Friday only added to the bewilderment as an attorney for the administrator, Deputy Chief Phil Schenck, accused Sweet of violating civil service rules in firing the 46-year-old officer, and then not being forthcoming about his reasons for withdrawing the termination a day later.
Yakima attorney Gary Lofland, in the first of two letters to Sweet released Friday, also threatened an appeal to the city civil service commission and legal action in the form of a claim for damages had the termination not been withdrawn.
Lofland, hired by Schenck to represent him after receiving the termination letter Tuesday, said the reasons Sweet provided fell short of the standards of just cause and good faith.
The reasons provided “are spurious, which casts doubt as to your good faith. In addition, the rules require a specified process including a pre-disciplinary hearing,” Lofland wrote in a Feb. 6 letter. “You have failed to follow the required process. Again, that casts doubt on whether your actions are taken to good faith.”
Sweet retracted the termination in a Wednesday letter, saying his actions had been misinterpreted and he was not firing Schenck.
Sweet said Friday afternoon in a telephone interview he had not seen either of Lofland’s letters until he returned to work Friday after being away since Wednesday. He said he wrote and signed the clarifying letter before he left Wednesday afternoon.
Sweet said he is turning the issue over to the city’s insurance company.
“I can’t go more into this,” Sweet said. “It is being handled by our insurance company. This is a personnel issue. I can’t say more than that.”
Mayor Mike Farmer said he had reviewed the letters from Lofland but could not comment other than to say it appeared civil service rules were not followed.
“I really don’t know what steps Frank took and I don’t know what procedures were taken,” he said.
Lofland said he doesn’t often take employment cases involving individuals in the public sector — he typically represents employers — but said Schenck’s situation was different.
“I think Phil is absolutely gold-plated as a police officer and a man,” Lofland said Friday. “He is well-respected in law enforcement and has done super work to reduce crime and gang activity.”
Schenck has been acting as police chief since former Chief Ed Radder retired last year. Schenck, who has been with the department 23 years, had said he wasn’t interested in the permanent position but changed his mind and confirmed Monday that he had applied for the post.
In the letter dated Jan. 30, Sweet wrote that because Schenck has been looking for work outside the city, Sweet could not have someone in a leadership position who was not fully committed to the city. The letter gave Schenck until Feb. 28 to find a job elsewhere.
Sweet rescinded the termination Wednesday, saying his actions had been misinterpreted, adding a response was expected either to confirm Schenck’s departure or to convince Sweet the officer wanted to continue with the department.
Lofland fired off a second letter to Sweet on Thursday, saying Schenck isn’t required to convince Sweet of anything to retain his job.
“If you have any legitimate concerns about performance, it is appropriate that you put them in writing so they can be understood and addressed. Those stated in your letter of January 30th are spurious and nonsensical,” Lofland’s letter said.
The City Council has scheduled an executive session to discuss the situation, followed by possible action, at its regular meeting Monday, which begins at 6:30 p.m. At least one council member has said publicly he has lost confidence in Sweet.