Saturday, April 17, 2021

Mattawa mayor may have placed police chief on leave

by Rachal Pinkerton
| April 8, 2021 1:00 AM

MATTAWA — Reports have circulated in the Mattawa community of Mayor Maggie Celaya placing Mattawa Police Chief Joe Harris on administrative leave March 30, after she accused Harris of disrespect and threatened disciplinary action.

The city of Mattawa refuses to confirm or deny the reports. The Columbia Basin Herald has attempted to confirm the reports with Celaya, city hall officials and the city’s lawyer, but has not received a definite response.

During a city council meeting April 1, Celaya responded to a question about the reports.

“The city is working through a process and has no comments at this time,” she said.

When asked the following day, city attorney Katherine Kennison said she couldn’t give any more information than the mayor and attempts to reword questions about the situation would not get any answers. City hall officials also were asked if they could confirm the reports. Questions were met with answers of not knowing any information and with a referral to speak to the mayor.

Harris, who normally gives police department reports at city council meetings, was not present at the April 1 meeting and Mattawa Police Sgt. Maybeline Pantaleon was the police department’s representative instead. Nothing was said about Harris’ absence, except Celaya’s brief comment stated above.

The Herald reported on March 10 Celaya had accused Harris of disrespect prior to her becoming mayor. Celaya, who was appointed mayor after writing a letter to former mayor Scott Hyndman on Nov. 6, 2020, asking him to resign, accused Hyndman and Harris of disrespecting the CARES Act subcommittee, of which she was the chairwoman.

Once appointed mayor in late November, Celaya continued to accuse Harris of disrespect, according to emails recently obtained by the Columbia Basin Herald.

On Dec. 2, 2020, Harris asked Celaya whether staff should talk if they have an issue with the mayor.

“Please know I mean no disrespect nor I am trying to be insubordinate,” Harris wrote. “After our conversation yesterday afternoon, and your repeated comments of disciplining me for acting disrespectful, I do not want to run afoul of your directives.”

That evening, Celaya sent Harris three emails in 15 minutes accusing Harris of attempting to influence police department staff.

“I do recall from yesterday’s conversation, you are not to attempt to influence staff,” Celaya wrote in the third email. “Your communication to staff should reflect your support and respect for my directives.”

Harris replied to two of Celaya’s emails with statements of confusion.

“I am confused as to how me providing leadership and direction to my team constitutes ‘attempts to influence,’” Harris wrote. “Your continued reference to me maliciously influencing staff is not true. I asked you for examples of this and to clarify the behavior you are referring to; you did not provide any. I cannot correct behavior I am not aware of.”

He went on to state Celaya’s “continued threats of discipline” were concerning and he had “stated over and over” his support for Celaya and his attempt to follow her directives.

“I have asked for clarification on these disrespectful behaviors you refer to,” Harris wrote. “I have not received any.”

Harris also stated Celaya had accused him of “trash talking the Chiprez family” (Celaya’s family of origin) and had threatened discipline if such talk continued.

“You have made numerous allegations against me and provided no examples, dates, information, or details supporting them,” Harris wrote. “Each of them has been followed with a threat of discipline if they continue. Mayor Celaya, I reiterate my desire to do my job, be professional, do what’s best for Mattawa, and support you. I cannot do that without your help. Please let me know what I can do to fix this.”

Harris concluded the email by stating Celaya’s “comments and actions feel personal and without cause” and he did not feel he was being treated fairly.

“Your actions are creating a hostile work environment,” Harris wrote.

At the end of the evening, Harris emailed the city’s attorney, asking who he should talk to if he had a problem with the mayor. He stated he had not included Celaya in the email because he was afraid of retaliation.

When the Columbia Basin Herald reached out to Celaya for comment on these emails, Celaya said “in the interest of protecting the rights of the City’s employees, I cannot discuss confidential personnel matters.”