YAKIMA, Wash. - Two weeks ago, Yakima police Chief Sam Granato was excited about receiving an invitation to attend President Barack Obama's speech on comprehensive immigration reform.
But the excitement turned to disappoint-ment when he was told by City Manager Dick Zais that he would not be able to attend as a city official.
Two days before the event, Granato received a front-row invitation from Vice President Joe Biden's office to attend the speech at American University in Washington, D.C., on July 1.
He immediately requested travel permission from Zais and was later informed in an e-mail that the city would neither pay for travel expenses nor allow him to attend wearing his uniform.
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If he had chosen to attend, he would have been able to go only as an individual and not as police chief of Yakima, Zais said.
Zais, who is set to retire next summer after 37 years with the city, said the decision is justified because the Yakima City Council has not taken a stance or communicated any policy decision on the immigration reform issue.
"I am not aware when or if any such discussion may or may not occur," Zais said.
Economic realities also played a part in the council's decision, Zais said.
While Zais does admit that it is an honor to be invited, he says the city is experiencing budget stress, and with such short notice he could not dip into the travel budget for what he estimates would have been a $1,500 trip.
He said that would not look good if the city paid for the trip when it is asking for furlough days and conducting layoffs of city employees.
"I understand the city manager's position, but I was disappointed I could not attend at my official capacity and would have paid for it myself," said Granato.
Council member Kathy Coffey was not aware of Zais' action until Thursday.
"I think it was just Zais who made the decision," Coffey said.
Zais is a council employee, and the city manager is responsible for the management and supervision of the city employees, according to Coffey.
"I know that it was primarily a budgetary issue, and we are just cutting back as far as we can with 200 employees," Coffey said.
Because the council had not discussed the issue, Coffey said she was not in a position to talk about the council's stance on immigration ó or whether Granato should have been allowed to wear his uniform at the event.
It's unclear whether Zais contacted other council members about the invitation.
Mayor Micah Cawley was unavailable for further comment Thursday.
In the past, Granato has been criticized for speaking at events such as May's immigration rally. Granato, who was not in uniform at the rally, said he spoke as himself and not as police chief when he called for immigration reform.
Later that month, he was in the hot seat, defending himself for speaking at the rally.
Robbie Byrne, a member of Grassroots of Yakima Valley, complained that Granato spoke in favor of immigration reform at the rally but snubbed a counterdemonstration by the group. Byrne said she was not speaking for Grassroots, which opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Another Grassroots member accused the chief of being soft on gang crime because he's Hispanic.
The chief previously said that he was proud of his Mexican heritage but even more proud to be an American.
He also told the Herald-Republic he would arrest anyone committing a crime regardless of their legal status.
Tomas Villanueva, co-founder of the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, in the past has said Granato's comments at the post-march rally were designed to encourage Latinos to report gang crime. He said the chief should be praised, not criticized, for his efforts at reaching out to the city's Spanish-speaking community.
In February, Granato participated in a telephone news conference with other law enforcement officials across the country.
During the news conference, he expressed his belief that officers should not participate in a federal program that grants local agencies authority to arrest immigration violators.
"What we see is they are afraid to step out of the shadows to report a crime or be a witness," Granato said in the conference call.
Granato has contended that he wants people ó documented or not ó to cooperate with police investigations.
When he received the news of the presidential invitation and city manager's reaction, he called Bernal Baca, a longtime friend and retired 30-year veteran of Yakima Valley Community College.
"I was quite disturbed," Baca said. "If the president of the U.S. invites one of us to go and get first-hand information to report back to the city, any official could at least go and listen. That's why there was a conference."
Baca sent an e-mail to Zais asking for an explanation. Zais responded by saying that it was an internal manner, said Baca. He replied by expressing his disagreement with the decision and never heard back.
The denied travel permission has caused reaction from some Latino community residents and leaders.
"The city of Yakima is sending very mixed messages to the community," said Villanueva. "If it would have been a white person invited, they would have sent him. You are only talking about $1,500 to send him. The city can read me another fairy tale."
Former council member Sonia Rodriguez True believes that if Granato would have been allowed to go as police chief, it would have put Yakima on the map. She doesn't believe that Granato would have represented any stance on the issue.
The last time a council member was invited to a presidential event was in 1994 during the Clinton administration, when Henry Beauchamp accepted the All-America City award for Yakima.
El Sol Editor Joseph Trevino contributed to this report.