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This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Tonasket mayor discovers there is such a thing as bad press

Well, that’s one way to get your hometown some national attention.

The mayor – for now – of Tonasket has managed to provide his town of about 1,000 souls a whole lot of datelines in a whole lot of newspapers and TV news broadcasts last week. Turns out that the mayor, Dennis Brown, tried to force one of the town’s police officers to change his first name from Jose to Joseph.

Jose is too Hispanic, see.

Don’t want to rattle the locals.

Given that this particular officer’s name is Jose Perez, one wonders if Brown had another last name in mind, too. Maybe a nice, white name like Brown? Officer Joseph Brown, Tonasket PD? One wonders what kind of education Brown received that he thinks it’s OK to ask such a thing of an employee, and then later try to claim, “It was just translation.”

I wouldn’t raise the education question if it weren’t something Brown himself brought up – saying “everybody” wonders that lately, in a rambling, incoherent defense of his actions at the City Council meeting last week.

“Well, I’ve made some mistakes,” Brown said, according to the Omak-Okanogan County Chronicle’s detailed account of a raucous battle over Brown’s handling – and disbanding – of the town’s small police department.

“I’m really sorry about those mistakes, but then, everybody kind of wonders what kind of education I have. Well, I’ll tell what kind of education. I went to all 12 years up at this school up here. Went through high school. I never was the greatest student in the world, I was too busy having fun. But I think there’s a lot of us that do the same thing.”

You really can’t blame everybody for wondering.

Following months of controversy, Brown abruptly and unilaterally disbanded the three-person police department earlier this month, intending to turn over law enforcement duties to the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department. Perez told the council, according to the Chronicle, that he was working on a case report on Jan. 6, a Sunday, when Brown came into the department and told him the police department was being shut down.

This followed a few weeks of bizarre controversies, in which Brown hired, fired, rehired, and then refired the chief and another officer. Part of the controversy centered on the qualifications of a reserve officer. In any case, Brown seemed to have pulled the trigger without letting anyone know and without a formal agreement in place from Okanogan County to step in.

“I asked the mayor, ‘I’m working on a current case, what should I do?’ ” Perez said. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, county will take over.’ And, I know how county works. County’s not gonna take over a case. I mean, they would have to do the whole entire investigation over again and start from point one. So … whoever you got for victims in a recent case, you guys are gonna see no justice.”

This has riled up a lot of people in Tonasket, understandably. Two City Council members voted no confidence in Brown, and one called for him to resign, which he has said he won’t do.

But it was Brown’s stunningly misguided attempt to whiten Jose Perez’s name that went viral.

Brown was challenged over this decision at a heated council meeting last week, in which he weakly offered a couple of defenses – that it was “just translation” and that Perez himself goes by both names, according to a widely shared video of the meeting.

Perez, who was in the audience, stood and gave a detailed account rebutting Brown’s claims.

“Mayor walked into the office, he told me, ‘I changed your name from Jose to Joseph because Jose sounds too stereotypical. It sounds too Hispanic,’ ” Perez said on the video. “He asked me to introduce myself to the public as Joseph.

“We went on a ride-along, and on that ride-along, we met a citizen. That citizen introduced himself. I introduced myself. I said, ‘My name is officer Jose Perez. The mayor looks at me, he says, ‘What did we talk about.’ I went back and said my name is Joseph Perez.”

Brown denied that to The Spokesman-Review last week.

“That’s false. There is a whole different version,” Brown said. “I asked him what he would prefer to be called. He didn’t say anything at the time.”

Nearly 1 in 10 Tonasket residents is Hispanic. Is the town well-served by a mayor with ignorant ideas about his constituents and their names, and with the misbegotten notion that it is within his authority to whitewash their identities?

No way.

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