Bonney Lake council debates civil service for police chief

With Mayor Neil Johnson poised to name Dana Powers as the city’s next official chief of police, the city council is taking up the issue of whether the chief should have civil service protection, like the rest of the police force, or be completely at will, like other department heads.

Presently the chief’s position is not part of the civil service system, which means the chief serves at the pleasure of the mayor and can be fired when he or she sees fit.

While Johnson favors the change to offer the next chief more job security, the council is almost evenly split on the move.

Johnson proposed the change at the request of Powers, who is worried about the possibility of taking the job and then facing a new mayor in a few years who may or may not want to keep her on.

Calling the police “the most important department in the city,” Johnson said he did not want to put the city in jeopardy because a new mayor wants to put their stamp on the office.

“I just want to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Johnson said.

Unlike “at will” employees, an employee covered by civil service has certain job protections, particularly that the employee may only be removed, suspended or fired “for cause” and then only after a written accusation.

Civil service employees may then submit a request from the civil service commission for an investigation to determine if the employment action was “for just cause.”

Johnson said the change may hamstring a future mayor to a previous administrrtion’s chief, but there is still a process to remove the person and he feels this would be the best way to prevent someone from “playing politics” with the chief of police.

“I understand both sides,” he said.

The opposition to the move feels that any incoming mayor must be able to put their stamp on city departments and that a mayor who makes a bad decision will be held accountable by voters, instead of the city’s appointed civil service commission.

“I believe the people voted for a mayor to be a single point of accountability,” Deputy Mayor Dan Swatman said. “There can only be one conductor of an orchestra.”

Calling it an “age-old debate,” Swatman was quick to say his view on the issue had nothing to do with Powers, whom he called an “outstanding candidate.”

“She’ll make an outstanding police chief,” he said.

But the chief’s position is one that has a high potential for scrutiny and Swatman said the one person accountable for those decision is the elected mayor.

“They elected a mayor for a particular reason,” he said. “You want that one person to be accountable.”

Councilmember Mark Hamilton, who also chair’s the council’s Public Safety Committee, said he supports the change because the police chief is unlike another department head in the city.

“It’s one of those position in which the department head … needs a little bit of a buffer when it comes to discipline from the mayor,” he said. “the chief is a unique position.”

Hamilton said as a law enforcement official, the chief takes an oath promising to uphold the Constitution and all state and local laws, unlike all other department heads.

Hamilton said keeping the the chief under the auspices of civil service means a mayor can only fire a police chief for “the right reasons,” as opposed to political or personal reasons.

“Civil service does not lock a person in to not being disciplined or not being fired, it just says you have to go through a process,” he said.

Swatman said he would support an employment contract with the incoming chief as a way to offer her job security, much like the mayor and council did with the city administrator, something Johnson said he would consider, though he said Powers specifically requested civil service protection.

The council discussed the matter during the Oct. 2 council workshop. At that time, the council seemed to be split 3-3, with one undecided.

During the Oct. 9 regular council meeting, the council voted to remove the item from the agenda for further discussion.