Tenino is exploring legal action, including a possible lawsuit against a former police chief, in an effort to recoup money from overpaid benefits.
The city owes $86,462 that was paid to John Hutchings, who served as police chief from June 2012 until his controversial termination in March.
Tenino must reimburse the state retirement trust fund, according to an audit by the state Department of Retirement Systems (DRS). The audit found that the city had failed to report Hutchings’ retirement and employment status.
Under his contract, Hutchings had agreed to work 159.5 hours or less per month to keep his retirement benefits, but he ended up working more than the allotted number of hours between June 2012 and October 2013.
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Mayor Bret Brodersen called a special meeting Thursday for the Tenino City Council to discuss the potential attorney fees, the police department’s budget status, and the police chief’s job description. The mayor presented an estimate from two attorneys who would charge $300 per hour and $200 per hour, respectively, for legal counsel related to the case.
However, some council members expressed concern with the lack of information Thursday. Brodersen said that for legal reasons, he was limited in what he could say, but said the council will learn more in executive session at its July 23 business meeting.
Councilman John O’Callahan warned that a prolonged legal battle will end up hurting the city.
“I would bet you dollars to doughnuts the other side will get a lawyer too,” O’Callahan said Thursday. “This is going to cost a whole lot of money. Moving forward with this thing is just going to be another loss.”
Councilman Wayne Fournier said he was not willing to take action until he had more details.
“There’s something between the lines we don’t know about,” he said.
Another agenda item Thursday was the revised job description for a new police chief. Brodersen presented some modifications that could broaden the pool of qualified applicants, he said. Revisions include making the position full time as well as reducing the education and experience requirements.
Once the council approves the new job description, the search for a new police chief can continue, Brodersen said. The new chief would earn a monthly salary ranging from $3,467 to $4,214 along with benefits.
“I’m hoping by the end of summer to have someone in place, if not sooner,” Brodersen told The Olympian.
Brodersen also said the city covered the $86,462 payment to DRS through an interfund loan, and will reimburse itself over the next three years. Excluding that amount, the police department’s budget is in good shape, he said. In the first six months of 2015, the department has used 47 percent of its overall budget of about $353,000.
Politically speaking, Brodersen’s decision to fire Hutchings has been hanging over his head like a black cloud. The council gave Brodersen a vote of no confidence as a result, while several members of the public have called for the mayor’s resignation and the reinstatement of the popular Hutchings. The Olympian has been unable to reach Hutchings for comment.
Tenino resident Julie Graham was among more than a dozen citizens who attended Thursday’s special council meeting. She and others criticized the last-minute notice of the meeting as well as the mayor’s lack of transparency on issues involving the former police chief.
“People care about this, but he doesn’t want to hear about it,” said Graham, who referenced the mayor’s current election campaign. “Public involvement is something you talk about when you want to get elected.”