First things first: Best of luck to Hermiston Police Lt. Jason Edmiston, who will be in charge of the department’s daily operations in the absence of Chief Dan Coulombe.

Edmiston is, as one observer noted, “a Hermiston guy.” Born and raised here, he might have as good of a grip as anyone on what enforcing the law in Hermiston requires.

But his job will by no means be an easy one. He’ll be asked to pick up the duties usually performed by Coulombe,  keep track of all the tasks that fell his way as a lieutenant and help begin the process of healing the rift within the department.

Our guess is  24 hours in a day might not be enough.

No doubt, things will be a little different at the HPD in the coming weeks. But we’re also confident that the rank and file folks will continue with their usual prompt and professional service.

From what I can tell, the people on the streets and in the office have never let their issues with the chief  interfere in any way with their duties. They are first and foremost professionals, they are good people and they do a good job. I can’t see why that would change.

Meanwhile, as the Coulombe situation continues to unfold, the question Hermiston residents need to be asking is a simple one:

How did it ever get to this point?

From this corner, it’s a textbook example of what happens when a city government doesn’t ask questions. It’s what happens when city leaders become complacent, allow one man to virtually run the show and conduct business with a rubber stamp.

Most of all, it’s what happens when city leaders refuse to publicly discuss issues that should be debated in the light of day rather than behind closed doors.

Now we’re seeing the result of such rapid-fire governance — and the final price tag won’t be small.

One thing we do know today is that there were some warning signs that all was not well in the Hermiston police department.

What we don’t know is why City Manager Ed Brookshier and Hermiston’s city council and mayor chose to ignore them.

For instance:

• An evaluation of the department was performed in 2004 by the same company that recommended Coulombe to the city in 2001. The evaluation noted communication problems and morale issues, but the city chose not to take any action.

• At about the same time, several members of the Hermiston Police Department met privately with city council members to express their concerns. They say their concerns were never addressed.

• At least 25 members of the department have left the Hermiston PD during Coulombe’s tenure. While movement in law enforcement is by no means uncommon, many of the officers who left Hermiston made “lateral” moves, with some even taking pay reductions. That’s not normal — but even as the exodus continued, those who left say nobody at City Hall took the time to conduct exit interviews.

• Complaints about the department were made public in at least two letters to the Herald from former employees and the wife of a former employee in 2007. According to those people, they were never contacted by city officials about their concerns.

• Also in 2007, Hermiston Municipal Judge Keith Kirkwood announced his resignation. In an editorial in the Herald , he cited interference from Coulombe as one of the main reasons  behind his departure.

“I’m very surprised the chief knows so little about our Constitution,” Kirkwood wrote. The former judge also noted, “I do not take orders from him nor does the city council have any right to dictate the court.” 

• Two lawsuits have been filed against the city the last two years, both naming Coulombe as a defendant. One of the suits was filed by a member of the department who cited problems similar to those in the complaint from the Police Association.

And those are just the “highlights.”

To most folks, that  would appear to be enough evidence that all has not been healthy at the HPD for several years.

Yet, Hermiston’s leaders have spent the last couple of weeks professing total surprise at the situation.

What’s ahead now is an investigation that will not be pretty. It will no doubt open old wounds, and will likely cause more than a minor level of discomfort among council members and others at City Hall.

They are not going to like what they hear.

Meanwhile, Hermiston taxpayers will be footing the bill, one that will easily reach six figures by the time the investigation is complete.

What’s not clear is whether Hermiston’s leaders were simply ignorant of the issues that existed, or whether they were tacitly complicit in causing the problems by refusing to address them.

What is clear, however, is that neither is acceptable — and Hermiston residents get to pay the price.

They deserve better.

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