Tenino has appointed an interim police chief to run the department while the city reviews three applicants for the permanent job.
Russ Ellis officially started duty Sept. 10, said Mayor Bret Brodersen.
Ellis is a former police chief for the Town of Ruston in Pierce County. He is willing to serve as long as needed — until Tenino finds a full-time police chief, said Brodersen, who had initially set a goal of filling the position this month.
“I would absolutely hope by the end of this year,” said Brodersen on the revised hiring timeline.
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According to the city, Ellis will be paid an hourly wage of $24.32. Ellis’ online profiles say he has a bachelor’s degree in law and justice studies and a master’s degree in public administration, both from Grand Canyon University.
“He reached out to me,” Brodersen said of Ellis. “He will be a good advocate for the city and police department.”
Ellis’ time as police chief in Ruston was brief. He was appointed chief in August 2001 and resigned in January 2002. A state audit of the Ruston Police Department shows Ellis was paid about $1,000 for time he did not work in 2001, and it reports that he falsified some time sheets. The matter was referred to the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office, but no charges were filed, according to a 2002 report in The News Tribune.
The state auditor also reported that Ellis did not follow proper procedures for handling and safeguarding evidence while in Ruston.
Ellis told The Olympian that while in Ruston, he had inherited a mess left by his predecessor. He said he resigned because of a change in the city’s administration.
As for the Tenino job, his goal is to fill in and serve as a temporary resource for the city.
“I’m really excited to be here and try and help,” said Ellis, who lives in unincorporated Thurston County. “I’m going to help them identify and find their next chief.”
Ellis said his previous law enforcement experience includes stints as a police officer in Nevada and California. This summer, he worked for the Department of Natural Resources as a protection officer, he said.
In 2013, Ellis had been selected to become interim police chief in Wellton, Arizona, but said he passed up the job to deal with a family emergency. Former Wellton Mayor James Deermer told The Olympian that Ellis had been the strongest candidate for the job in this southern Arizona town of about 2,800 people. Deermer said Ellis didn’t sign his contract by the deadline and seemed to just drop out of the running.
“I felt really good with him when we had the interview,” Deermer said. “He seemed well-grounded.”
It’s been a tumultuous year for the Tenino Police Department. Last spring, the mayor fired former chief John Hutchings, saying Hutchings had worked extra hours and had hired a reserve officer without approval. Those extra hours added up to $86,462 in pension payments that the city must pay back to the state retirement trust fund.
The controversial termination led to calls for Brodersen’s resignation, and the Tenino City Council subsequently issued a 3-2 vote of no-confidence in the mayor. In addition, Hutchings is pursuing a defamation lawsuit against the city.
The police department staff has dwindled to just one full-time officer after the departure of Stephen Rowe, who resigned last month to take a job with the Mason County Sheriff’s Office.
Full staffing for the department would include three full-time officers, a full-time police chief and a part-time office administrator, Brodersen said. The latter position was recently filled. The city is actively recruiting experienced police officers and has an agreement with the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office for backup service, Brodersen said.
The state of the police department is a hot topic for Tenino candidates in the general election. Brodersen is running to keep his seat against Tenino City Council member Wayne Fournier, who has raised concerns about the police department’s staffing. Fournier also questioned the use of volunteer reserve officers.
The department has three “cadet reserve volunteers” who are undergoing training at this time, according to a letter to Fournier from Officer Rowe. The unarmed volunteers “were asked to help out with the very depleted manpower” at the recent Oregon Trail Days event, according to the letter, which addressed Fournier’s concerns about the volunteers wearing uniforms and bulletproof vests.
Aside from the lack of a chief, Fournier said the department’s dire situation is reflected in its reliance on volunteers and reserve officers.
“The interim chief is important to get the police department back on stable ground,” he said, making a nod to past troubles in the small city’s government. “We’ve got lingering issues.”