The City of Sunnyside lost both its mayor and interim city manager during a contentious meeting last night with a standing room only crowd that ignored requests to hold applause as citizen after citizen came forward to show support for Deputy Police Chief Phil Schenck.
After a number of public comments and a 52-minute executive session, the council voted 4-2 to fire Interim City Manager Frank Sweet. During the vote, Mayor Mike Farmer resigned his position as mayor and his position as councilman and left the room without casting a vote.
Issues in the city government came to head early last week when Sweet presented Schenck with an apparent termination letter. Two days later Sweet issued a second letter that said Schenck had misunderstood the original letter. However, city council members also had interpreted the first letter as firing the deputy chief, who has served Sunnyside as an officer for 23 years.
An executive session was scheduled during last night's city council meeting to discuss personnel issues, but as more and more people crowded into the council chambers the subject quickly became the only topic of the meeting.
Farmer started the meeting by asking for a change in the agenda and moving the executive session to be the first item, but other council members asked to hear from the public first.
In all, 18 people spoke during the time allotted for citizens, including the deputy chief himself. Of the other 17, all but one expressed clear support for Schenck or outrage at Sweet.
Business owners and citizens spoke to praise the work Schenck has done in the city of Sunnyside. Some speakers were nearly overcome with emotion.
"The deputy chief has done a lot for this community," said Guadalupe Rodriguez, a Sunnyside High School senior. "I've seen deaths of friends. I've seen friends of friends die. I've been to many funerals in the past before. I've seen the change the deputy chief has brought to this community and I do not want him to go."
One speaker addressed Councilman Jim Restucci's comments that it is the council's job to hire the city manager and let him run the city. The speaker's contention was that Sweet's troubles from his time as city manager in Selah indicate he was never fit to serve in Sunnyside.
Trish Combs, who organizes a volunteer group that runs the community center, spoke in favor of working out the issues. She pointed out that both men have families and both are doing what they think is best for the city.
"I don't have all the facts of what is happening or why it's happening because I don't know everything behind the scenes," said Combs. "But I trust the city council will put feelings aside and sort through the facts and figure this out."
Combs made a plea for reconciliation, tying the future of the city into its ability to solve this issue.
"I feel that if we can figure a way to solve this and unite us as a community, as a council, as two friends, we can solve all the problems of this community," she said.
Last to speak was the deputy chief himself, who made several claims about the sequence of events last week.
"Mr. Sweet says I was unavailable for six days," Schenck said, regarding Sweet's comments to the Daily Sun News. "I was out of town for two days. I worked Monday, Tuesday and Friday, I used vacation for the other two days."
Schenck stated that he did not inform Sweet of the job search because the interim city manager had been vindictive to other city employees. Schenck also said he did not apply for the police chief job in the first round because he did not think he would be given a fair chance. He said he had applied in the second round due to encouragement from the community.
Schenck also claimed Sweet told the deputy chief directly that he had been let go in a meeting last Tuesday morning.
Schenck says he contacted a lawyer and had a letter sent to Sweet and the mayor at 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday, then learned about the second letter in the media before actually receiving it. He said the second letter and the claim that he was gone for six days were dishonest on Sweet's part.
"I don't desire to give up my career," said Schenck. "I implore council to provide the employees and community members of our city a manager with integrity. Mr. Sweet is not that manager."
Schenck also offered to submit to a polygraph test to determine if he was speaking the truth on the issue.
After he finished speaking, Schenck received a partial standing ovation and Councilman Jason Raines immediately moved to fire Sweet. The council voted 5-2 to go into executive session to discuss the issue.
When the council returned from the session, Farmer called for a roll call vote. Restucci voted against the resolution to fire Sweet. Councilman Craig Hicks, Deputy Mayor Don Vlieger, Raines and Councilman Nick Paulakis all voted for the resolution.
When it came to his turn, Farmer told the audience that the situation was lose-lose and resigned. Councilwoman Theresa Hancock then voted against the resolution.
Raines then proposed a resolution suspending the interim city manager until the effective date of his termination. The vote was 3-2, with Vlieger, Raines and Hicks voting for, Hancock and Restucci against and Paulakis abstaining.
Raines then proposed appointing Fire Chief Aaron Markham as acting city manager. The fire chief expressed surprise and concern.
"It would have been nice to know council's thoughts on this prior to this meeting," said Markham. "In light of the tenure of city managers in this city and my tenure in the fire department of 21 and a half years, I'd like to continue to work for the city."
While the audience laughed, Vlieger said the appointment would only be for a week or two.
"With that being said, I would do my best to keep things in the city moving as smoothly as possible," Markham said. "I will do what I can on a short term interim basis."
The vote was unanimous to appoint Markham acting city manager.
Restucci then called for a vote for mayor and deputy mayor. Restucci was nominated by Hancock to replace Farmer as mayor and it was seconded by Paulakis. Vlieger was nominated by Raines but the nomination was not seconded. The vote went in favor of Restucci 4-2. Vlieger was voted deputy mayor.
The city council then passed the consent agenda and adjourned the meeting.
Raines said after the meeting that he'd given the matter a lot of thought.
"I had no confidence in Sweet leading us forward," said Raines. "I made these resolutions so we can move forward."
Newly appointed Mayor Jim Restucci said the council had acted rashly.
"I don't think we gave Frank enough time," he said. "We gave Eric Swansen more time."
Restucci said he would be meeting with Markham on Thursday.
Hancock said the council had the option of participating in a mediation session to resolve the situation, and believed that would have been the best course for the city. There wasn't enough support from the rest of the council to take that course, however.
"It's a sad day for Sunnyside," she said.