Our Opinion: Chief's departure leaves unanswered questions
"Where is Police Chief Janie Schutz?" the subject line of an e-newsletter from the News-Times asked last week.
The answer, it turns out, is "retired." At least, that's the official answer. Considering that as of press time, the city of Forest Grove hasn't even put out a statement acknowledging Schutz's retirement or thanking her for her nearly eight years of service to the city, it's clear there's more to the story.
City officials have stonewalled the News-Times, refusing to answer basic questions about Schutz's departure.
Maybe city officials don't want to divulge every detail, some of which may be legally privileged. But at every turn, the city has failed to be proactive in communicating the situation, to the point where it wasn't City Hall that first told the News-Times that Schutz had retired — it was the former chief herself. At every turn, the city has declined to be transparent about the situation, even in cases where there is no reason to think that information is covered by attorney-client privilege or other exemptions from public disclosure.
The public deserves to know what's going on at City Hall. And the silence from City Hall has, unsurprisingly, fueled rampant speculation about what happened and what the chief did to prompt such a hasty exit.
Schutz has garnered a lot of respect in Forest Grove during her tenure as chief, especially after she went public as a rape survivor in 2016, sharing her story of childhood sexual abuse for the first time. She received a statewide award for her advocacy for crime victims in 2018. She has been the public face of the police department, and one of the city's most prominent leaders in the community, for years.
All this stonewalling does is make every involved party look bad.
City officials aren't being proactive or transparent about a matter that should be of importance to anyone who lives or does business in Forest Grove. That's a bad look, especially considering the very deliberate and open process that neighboring Cornelius went through as it investigated allegations of misconduct and corruption within its police department several years ago, followed by the decision to do away with the department altogether and contract with the Washington County Sheriff's Office. Forest Grove comes off like it's trying to do the business of the city in the dark, whereas Cornelius forthrightly confronted its issues and dealt with them in the light of day.
It's especially bad form for the city considering that the Forest Grove City Council has plans to ask voters to pay for a new police station. Countless hours have gone into discussing what a new station would look like, how it would benefit police and the community, and whether voters can be persuaded to support it. There have been open houses at the police station to demonstrate the need for a new station. It seems city officials are happy to put the inner workings of the police department on display when they're asking for more money.
It's unfair to the employees of the police department, too. There's a leadership vacuum right now, as the department is getting by with two captains, one of whom was only promoted last month, at the same time higher-ups at the city aren't answering basic questions about what happened to the chief. Forest Grove's finest deserve better than to be left to guess at the circumstances of her departure.
And it's especially unfair to Schutz, whose reputation is left to twist in the wind as rumors and innuendo fill in every gap in the official version of events.
It's unclear at this point whether Schutz was actually accused of any misconduct, or whether such accusations were substantiated, because the city isn't telling. It's unclear whether the city would have fired Schutz — although she told the News-Times she believed last week her choice was either retirement or termination — because the city won't say. It's unclear whether Schutz has grounds for a lawsuit against the city, or whether this kerfuffle could end up in court somehow, because the city hasn't even confirmed or denied that a separation agreement was signed.
City Hall can set this straight by letting go of its intransigence on the subject and coming to account. City officials should be honest with members of the media, the public and their municipal workforce about what led to Janie Schutz's sudden retirement from the Forest Grove Police Department. They should move quickly to fulfill public records requests, not drag their heels for as long as possible before the truth comes out in dribs and drabs. They should set and announce plans, as soon as is practical, for how the Forest Grove Police Department will move forward from here.
This has been a bungle so far. City Manager Jesse VanderZanden has an opportunity to set things right, or as right as they can be. We hope he'll take it.
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