In honor of a new year, time to start a new notebook — which means cleaning out the old one. ...

Fair warning: Things around Hermiston City Hall could get awfully interesting in the next few months.

Earlier this week, the Hermiston City Council met to discuss a tort claim notice filed against the city and the police department last September by officer Doug Smith, a long-time member of the force. The council held an executive session on the issue, and if you are familiar with the council, that’s not something they do just for the fun of it.

Those folks like to get down to business, get it over with and move on.

In fact, Herald reporter Jennifer Colton told me it’s only the third time in the last year that she could remember the council convening for a closed-door discussion.

What a tort claim means is that Smith hasn’t actually filed a lawsuit. He’s just notified the city that he might decide to do that, and he and his attorneys have a year to figure out whether they want to continue to move in that direction.

Meanwhile, the city can gather all the information it needs to defend itself — and then wait.

From the city’s perspective, it’s not all bad in this instance. While nobody in town can be happy that there’s even a hint of impropriety in the police department, an independent investigator has determined that no criminal misconduct took place.

That’s good to know.

But the Smith case is just a preliminary to the fireworks that will likely be coming down the pike in February. That’s when a civil suit filed by Hermiston business owners Deborah Westwood and Mitchell Myers is scheduled to go before a jury in Pendleton.

From what I understand, this is some bad blood that’s finally coming to a boil. Certainly, the adversaries in this case are by no means strangers.

Westwood was acquitted on a misdemeanor charge of “obstructing judicial administration” by a jury in 2007, a case that still rankles some folks at City Hall. That same case resulted in Westwood engaging in a public records battle with the city, with a judge eventually ruling in her favor — another decision City Hall didn’t agree with.

As for Myers — who happens to be Westwood’s ex-husband and still her business partner — I’m told his contentious relationship with City Hall goes back decades.

Now, it’s getting hot.

The lawsuit contends that the city and the police department have targeted Westwood’s and Myers’ restaurant and bar — Nookie’s — by trying to get their liquor license revoked. One of their attorneys in the case, Justin Burns, was quoted last year as saying that the city and police have engaged in “adverse activities” when dealing with their restaurant and its patrons.

They aren’t asking for chicken feed. The lawsuit details more than $2 million in damages, citing lost income, legal fees, humiliation and loss of reputation — just for starters.

City attorney Gary Luisi, meanwhile, told the Tri-City Herald last fall that he doesn’t believe the lawsuit has merit.

I’m certainly not qualified to say whether the case has merit — but I do know it has the city’s attention. The two sides have been trading evidence and taking depositions for months, and Myers is anxious for his day in court.

This is a case Hermiston folks need to watch carefully. Whether any of Myers’ allegations are true — or none of them — is something that should concern everyone who lives in these parts.

The part of me that wants to be able to trust the folks who make the decisions in our community wants the allegations to be false. If the city is vindicated, that will be good news for the people who have put their faith in their government.

But if not ... well, if not, there will likely be more questions that need to be answered.

Just a reminder that the 6-cent bump in the state’s gas tax kicks in Saturday, pushing it to 30 cents per gallon. I wrote about the tax a couple of weeks ago, and an alert reader (who also happens to be one of my bosses) sent me a gentle reminder that while I might not like the tax, it will help pay for some much-needed road repairs in our neck of the woods.

In this case, it means improvements at the Lamb Road, Walker Road and Westland Road intersection southwest of Hermiston, to the tune of $1.1 million. I know the intersection, and that makes my 6-cents per gallon contribution feel a little better.

Word is the negotiations between Good Shepherd Medical Center and its nurses are moving forward and an agreement might actually not be too far off. That’s good news. Health care matters to all of us, and while I may not have a particular dog in this fight, I do want the best health care available when I need it. A resolution here would definitely make everyone in these parts feel a little more comfortable in that regard.

And finally, my wife and I continue to be pleasantly amazed at the friendly folks in these parts. Maybe we spent too much time in the big city the last few years, or maybe Oregon people are just more friendly than most — but whatever the reason, our first month in town has been a treat.

People wave. People say hello on the street and smile when they say it. When you walk into a local business, you are greeted as if they really want your business, and they’re glad you stopped by. Even in the last few days of the Christmas rush — when lines are usually long and tempers tend to run short — we ran into nothing but nice folks.

Like I said, maybe it’s our time in the city that made us a little jaded. Maybe we just forgot how nice people in smaller communities are.

But whatever the reason, thanks for making our first month in Hermiston one worth remembering for all the right reasons.

Here’s to a healthy and adventurous 2011 for everyone.

Know of something we need to be reporting? A piece of news you’d like to see in the Herald? Drop me a note at nwoelk@hermistonherald.com or call me at 541-564-4533.

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