Councilor blasts city manager for reinstating police officer

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: June 14, 2011, 3:27 PM

 

UPDATE, Tuesday 3:30 p.m.: Councilor Pat Campbell met with City Manager Eric Holmes and Police Chief Cliff Cook Monday. He sent an email to Holmes and Cliff Cook at 8:21 p.m. Monday (after this story was filed) and said he now agrees with the city manager's decision to reinstate Officer Brian Billingsley.

Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes’ reinstatement of a fired police officer last week prompted a scathing email from City Councilor Pat Campbell, who called the action a “slap in the face.”

Officer Brian Billingsley, who was fired by Police Chief Cliff Cook in March, was reinstated Friday by Holmes with a 28-day suspension and letter of reprimand. Cook fired Billingsley in the fallout of a Washington State Patrol and Vancouver Internal Affairs investigation of former VPD Officer Erik McGarrity, who allegedly had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a confidential informant, Tegan Rushworth.

The reinstatement is the first case under a union agreement approved in 2010 that gives the city manager the final say in the termination of police employees, a call that had rested in the hands of the police chief alone. Under the new rules, an officer can appeal his or her termination to a four-person Discipline Review Board, which then gives a recommendation to the city manager.

But Campbell said in an email sent at 4:47 a.m. Friday that the city council made a public decision to back Cook “in cleaning up VPD and ridding it of corruption and incompetence.”

“Your action pardoning Billingsley is in direct conflict with that decision and has gravely if not fatally injured a process that was extremely difficult but absolutely essential in restoring our community’s faith in our police force,” Campbell wrote. “Not only is it a slap in the face of council, it is also extremely injurious to the majority of VPD officers and staff who have worked to serve the public honestly.”

The city council does not have hiring or firing power over any city employee except the city manager. Other members of the council did not appear to share Campbell’s anger over Holmes’ decision. The city council appointed Holmes as city manager in November.

“(I) see this as a good faith effort by management to improve the process,” Councilor Bart Hansen wrote in reply to Campbell’s email. “I believe it is vital to have the city manager involved in this process. Would we have rather gone through the grievance/arbitration process on this matter? Inevitably, it is the city manager that will be held responsible for these decisions. As council we really only have control over one employee and he is doing a great job.”

Integrity in question

In an interview Saturday, Campbell focused on allegations that Billingsley had been less than forthcoming in answering State Patrol officers about the extent of his knowledge of the relationship between McGarrity and Rushworth, 25, the 2003 Fort Vancouver Rodeo Queen-turned-felon. McGarrity resigned in November 2010. Cook had said Billingsley had gone so far as to make false statements to investigators, but Holmes overturned that policy violation.

Holmes, in an eight-page reinstatement letter, said he too felt Billingsley should have given more detail in his answers.

“Such candor would be consistent with your obligation under this policy to provide a full and complete statement, and would … have been assistive to the investigation,” he wrote.”

Campbell said keeping an officer whose integrity is under question on the force is keeping a bad apple that could spoil the bunch.

“It more importantly puts citizens in danger of rights violations and other injuries by a return to past practices by a minority in VPD,” Campbell wrote to Holmes. “Unfortunately my words echo your words regarding Officer Billingsley. These failings, for which you are solely responsible, are inexcusable and strike at the heart of the city’s efforts to build and maintain a credible, professional police force in our community.”

Holmes said he met with Campbell on Monday afternoon to talk about his decision.

“I appreciated the chance to be able to talk about it,” he said.

Councilor Jack Burkman also wrote to Holmes last week that he felt the issue was the purview of the city manager.

“We do not have any facts or details about this issue, nor should we,” Burkman wrote. “I know you were thorough and careful in your analysis of this grievance and support your decision”

On Thursday, Chief Cook said he respects Holmes’ call.

“It brought an additional step to the process that I believe the officers and police guild believe is beneficial,” Cook said. “It provides another opportunity for the public to understand how decisions are made.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com.