An emotional plea from former Sunnyside Prosecuting Attorney Katy Hitchcock early in last night's city council meeting set the stage for a motion to reconsider the hiring of a firm out of the Tri-Cities for the city's prosecutorial needs.
According to Acting City Manager Aaron Markham, Hitchcock was notified by then Interim City Manager Frank Sweet on Jan. 24 that her services would no longer be required by the city.
At the Jan. 28 city council meeting, Sweet proposed hiring Bell, Brown and Rio, PLLC, as the new prosecuting service for the city. The proposal passed on a 5-1 vote, with Councilman Jim Restucci dissenting and Deputy Mayor Don Vlieger absent.
Councilman Jason Raines brought forward the motion at last night's meeting to reconsider, stating that the change had been too abrupt and the council had not had time to consider the change in prosecutorial services before voting on the change.
Raines also noted that some services that Hitchcock provided were not included in the new contract with Bell, Brown and Rio, PLLC and would end up costing the city in the long run.
Early in the meeting, a number of people supporting Hitchcock spoke during the time allotted for public comment.
Police Officer Anthony Russell of the Sunnyside Police Department spoke for the Sunnyside Police Guild in support of Hitchcock, saying she has a great working relationship with Sunnyside police. He presented a petition signed by officers supporting Hitchcock.
Sergeant Cas Cedillo of the Mabton Police Department spoke on behalf of his department, also in support of Hitchcock. He said consistency is important for police working with prosecutors and said that in the event Sunnyside loses her, Mabton would entertain the idea of terminating the jail and court contracts with Sunnyside.
Lawyer William Schuler and Granger Police Chief Robert Perales also spoke in her support.
Hitchcock herself spoke to council, saying she has been with the city many years and is part of the community.
"This is much more than a job," she said. "These people are my family."
In tears, she described working 17 years with the police department. She told the council that the job is much more than coming to court and handling files for her. She told the council that she routinely answered questions from officers when they called her at 3 a.m.
She said she filled out the applications Sweet required and did not request a raise. But she said she never heard back from Sweet until she got a one-page letter with three lines from him terminating her employment.
The issue of the letter came up last night during the motion to reconsider, when Vlieger noted that while it was dated Jan. 24, it indicated the city had already decided to go with another firm.
The motion to reconsider passed by a vote of 3-2, with Raines, Vlieger and Councilman Craig Hicks voting for, Councilwoman Theresa Hancock and Mayor Restucci against and Councilman Nick Paulakis abstaining.
After the vote, Markham summarized the situation, including listing a number of allegations against Hitchcock that apparently had not been presented to her at the time her employment was terminated. The council gave Hitchcock leave to address the allegations, which she denied.
Vlieger proposed the city give Bell, Brown and Rio, PLLC the required 60-day notice of termination and allow them to serve as city prosecutors during that time and rehire Hitchcock at the end of the 60 days.
Hancock objected, pointing out that the long-term effects of canceling a contract in this manner may come back to haunt the city. Other vendors may not be willing to do business with the city in the future due to the fear of having a contract canceled, she said.
The council voted 3-2 to prepare a termination notice for the March 25 city council meeting and in the meantime have the acting city manager and city attorneys attempt to negotiate a settlement deal with Bell, Brown and Rio.