Police chief refuses June retirement, threatens lawsuit
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
April 28, 2012 · Updated 12:12 PM
Oak Harbor Police Chief Rick Wallace doesn’t want to retire at the end of June and he will sue the city if the mayor forces him to, according to a letter his attorney delivered to the city.
Mayor Scott Dudley, however, said he has no plans to let the chief stay on after June 30.
The letter, written by attorney Christon Skinner of Oak Harbor, indicates that Dudley threatened Wallace with termination if he didn’t retire this summer. Dudley, who ran as a reformer, also fired the city administrator, the city attorney and the fire chief in a housecleaning move shortly after taking office in January.
Skinner argued that the mayor incorrectly assumed that Wallace was an “at will” employee and could be fired without cause. But Wallace never received an employment contract when he was hired by former Mayor Jim Slowik, so he can’t be an at-will employee under the city code, Skinner wrote.
“Accordingly, Chief Wallace is withdrawing his notice of intent to retire on June 30, 2012 effective immediately,” the letter states. “He intends to retain his position as the Chief of Police until further notice.”
Skinner threatened a lawsuit if the chief is either terminated or retaliated against.
“Chief Wallace is prepared to pursue a claim for wrongful termination against the city and all potentially liable individuals if the mayor terminates his employment under these circumstances,” the letter states.
Skinner also wrote that Wallace has served in an exemplary manner and that the mayor has no cause to fire him. In law enforcement circles, Wallace is known as a mild-mannered professional who’s keenly aware of what’s happening in his office without being a micro-manager.
In an interview, Dudley conceded that he did push Wallace out.
“I let him know that I would most likely let him go if he didn’t retire,” Dudley said.
“He would have been fired, but we didn’t have to go down that route,” he added.
In an interview with a News-Times reporter in January, Dudley and Wallace told a somewhat different story.
At the time, both men indicated that the retirement date was a mutually agreed upon decision. Wallace said he had been dithering about when to retire, but the mayor wanted him to stick to the June 30 retirement date, which marked his 35th year with the department. Wallace said at the time he didn’t begrudge the mayor the right to make changes in city leadership.
Dudley said he feels he was within his rights to either fire the chief or to pressure him to retire. He said it’s clear that the chief is an at-will employee.
City Attorney Bill Hawkins said the letter from Skinner was sent to attorneys with the city’s insurance provider to handle, but he doesn’t believe Wallace has a case. Even if the chief isn’t currently an at-will employee --- which Hawkins isn’t admitting --- then Wallace will be once the council adopts the new personnel code update, which clearly lists at-will employees. He said case law shows that employment status rights don’t vest, which means they can be changed.
The city council is scheduled to adopt the personnel code update May 15.
The city is currently in the process of advertising far and wide to attract candidates to the police chief position. The closure date for applications is May 11.
Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at email@example.com or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.