Chief selection causes a stir
April 30, 2009 · Updated 12:29 PM
By Dennis Box and
The announcement of a new police chief caused a swirl of controversy around Bonney Lake last week.
Mayor Neil Johnson announced Aug. 2 Mike Mitchell was his pick to be the city's next chief.
Mitchell is an assistant chief with the Mountlake Terrace Police Department in Snohomish County. Mitchell, 50, has worked in law enforcement for 21 years.
Johnson chose Mitchell over the current interim Chief Art “Buster” McGehee and the decision created a political storm between the mayor and the police guild.
Johnson said he spent a couple of weeks reading all the information on the two candidates and discussing his choice with staff and community members before deciding on Mitchell.
“When I went into this I thought Buster would be the choice,” Johnson said. “But after I went through the process, things changed. I really appreciate all of Buster's hard work and his insight. But Mike is someone who can give us a long tenure and focus on the future needs of the city.”
Detective Brian Byerley, vice president of the police officer's guild, said on Thursday, “We're just shocked. The officers are devastated.”
Byerley said the guild is not opposed to Mitchell - they don't know him - but they are pleased with the way things are now and morale has never been higher.
According to Byerley, members of the guild expected McGehee to be the choice.
Once the guild began expressing its displeasure with the decision, Byerley invited Johnson to meet with guild members Thursday night at the Public Safety Building, an invitation Johnson immediately accepted.
Councilman Mark Hamilton and Mitchell joined Johnson at the meeting.
“I was surprised at the level of anger toward the mayor,” Hamilton said. “They really felt Buster was the best candidate and they thought he would take the police force into the future. You could tell Buster was very respected as a chief and peace officer.”
Hamilton was a member of the panel that reviewed the 19 applicants for the job and sent forward its top two recommendations, McGehee and Mitchell.
The panel members were Hamilton, City Councilman Phil DeLeo, City Administrator Don Morrison and two members from the police officer's guild, Byerley and Sgt. Kelly Maris.
“This was the first time the mayor brought guild members and the council in to help in the process of choosing,” Hamilton said. “There was more public input. This was a difficult decision. It was nip and tuck.”
Johnson said he expected members to vent their frustration.
“I wanted them to understand this wasn't an easy decision,” Johnson said. “I've never been to a meeting like this in my life, but afterward many of them came up and said they respected my decision and they were glad I came to meet them.”
Hamilton said although the guild members were angry about the decision, “I think Neil won them back by the end.”
Byerley said after the meeting, “Johnson's got guts. At least he cared enough to come down and talk to us.”
Byerley also said while the guild doesn't necessarily like the decision, members will respect it and the meeting was an opportunity to vent.
“Time will heal all wounds,” he said. “Everybody came away comfortable with the decision.”
Byerley said officers were not angry with Mitchell and, “We will work just as hard for Mike Mitchell as we would for Buster.”
Mitchell said he was “comfortable that once the guild members get a chance to meet me their fears will go away. I'm a total unknown to them, but I'm looking forward to the challenge of leading a department in a growing community. Mountlake Terrace has gone through a lot of the same things as Bonney Lake.”
Mountlake Terrace has a population of about 20,000.
Mitchell said he intends to move to Bonney Lake.
“I'm going to be part of the community,” Mitchell said. “I don't want to be a chief who lives 60 miles away and collects his check.”
Johnson said Mitchell's salary will be between $85,000 and $90,000 per year.
McGehee has served as the interim chief since January 2005. He replaced Chief Bryan Jeter, who resigned Dec. 3, 2004, to take a position as lieutenant of patrols with the Puyallup Police Department.
When Jeter left, the internal problem between the chief and Mayor Bob Young spilled into the public after The Courier-Herald published an exit interview.
Police officers credit McGehee with pulling a department together after the loss of Jeter, putting a focus back on the officers and fighting for the needs of the department.
The City Council refused to allow Young to appoint McGehee as permanent chief until after the 2005 mayoral election, which Young lost to Johnson.
Johnson's selection of Mitchell is subject to council confirmation. The mayor said he expects Mitchell to be confirmed by mid-August and to start shortly after Labor Day.