Commissioner’s ‘statement’ trip raises hackles, stirs debate

By Don Nelson

Okanogan County Commissioner Jim DeTro’s recent recreational all-terrain vehicle trip from Conconully to Winthrop with a bunch of friends has sparked renewed debate over how the town of Winthrop views ATVs.

Although apparently in violation of the town’s prohibition against ATVs on its streets, DeTro and party had lunch and left Winthrop without being cited. The episode prompted a sometimes-heated off-agenda discussion at last week’s council meeting.

DeTro said this week that more than 20 people were part of his group and they spent about $340 for lunch at Three Fingered Jack’s Saloon on Sept. 2. DeTro posted an account of the event, with 17 photos, on his Facebook page. The commissioner said that they saw no signs at the town limits about Winthrop’s ban on ATVs.

DeTro added that “we wanted to make a statement” by riding to Winthrop that the town’s attitude toward ATVs “is very discriminatory.”

Having made the point, DeTro said, “it’s not something we’re going to make a habit of.”

“We had a good visit and a nice lunch and we left,” said DeTro, who added that he believes some Winthrop business owners would like so see the town opened up to ATVs.

At last week’s council meeting, Mayor Anne Acheson, who had been in office little more than a week, and Marshal Hal Henning, who has held the job for only a couple of months, debated whether the town has the ability to enforce its ATV ban on State Highway 20, which runs through the town. The mayor directed Henning to ticket any ATV driven on the streets of Winthrop, including Highway 20.

But the Highway 20 argument may be a moot point in the case of DeTro’s trip, because he and his party clearly used town streets, in addition to county and U.S. Forest Service roads that may also be off-limits to ATVs.

Some Winthrop residents noticed, and brought the ATV group to the attention of Henning, who said later that he did not know who DeTro was. Henning talked to DeTro’s group but did not issue citations. “They left and I didn’t see a reason to write a citation,” he said.

“We had a pleasant conversation with the marshal,” DeTro said. “There was no intent to get him into trouble.”

Confusion about law

In 2015, the Winthrop Town Council voted not to allow ATVs within the town limits. The issue has been mostly dormant in Winthrop since then, but the ATV argument is alive in the form of a lawsuit challenging the commissioners’ decision to open some 600 miles of county roads to ATVs (see related story, page A2).

At last week’s council meeting during the town notices portion of the meeting, Acheson noted that people had “noticed a lot of them” (ATVs) in town, and she asked for strict enforcement of the town’s ATV ban.

Henning said that as a department head he should be allowed the latitude and discretion to do his job as he sees fit and make situational decisions. Henning argued that state law indicates that while towns may ban wheeled ATVs — which are specially equipped and licensed — they can’t prohibit ATV use on state highways when the speed limit is 35 miles per hour, as it is in Winthrop.

The applicable state law says that “A person … may operate a wheeled all-terrain vehicle upon a segment of a state highway listed in chapter 47.17 RCW if the segment is within the limits of a city or town and the speed limit on the segment is thirty-five miles per hour or less.”

However, the following paragraph states “A person may not operate a wheeled all-terrain vehicle on a public roadway within the boundaries of a city or town, not including nonhighway roads and trails, unless the city or town by ordinance has approved the operation of wheeled all-terrain vehicles on city or town roadways, not including nonhighway roads and trails.”

The question then is whether a town can assert that state highways are also “city or town roadways” and thus subject to municipal laws.

Minimally, it’s confusing, Henning said. “I have an issue citing people when there is confusion,” the marshal said. “It’s convoluted.”

Henning suggested that the town adopt an ordinance more specifically prohibiting ATV use. “If you want them out of town, you have to adopt an ordinance,” he said. “I just want directions. We can’t start targeting specific groups.”

Acheson said that her understanding of the town’s status is that ATVs are illegal unless specifically allowed by town action. That includes Highway 20, Acheson said in a later interview. “We will enforce under that understanding of the law,” she said.

Differences of opinion

At last week’s meeting, council member Mike Strulic defended ATVs, saying he didn’t understand why people are afraid of them and that he disapproves of “demonizing” the vehicles. “I’d like to see them here,” he said.

Council member Rick Northcott agreed that if ATVS are in town illegally they should be cited, but noted that “we don’t cite every speeder or violator” of other traffic laws.

At one point, council member Gaile Bryant-Cannon turned to Henning and said, “this confrontational attitude is surprising me.”

Henning replied that he was simply seeking direction.

In an interview after the meeting, Acheson acknowledged a difference of opinion about enforcement but said she is acting on what she believes the town’s residents have indicated they want.

“I took the citizen complaints seriously,” she said. “I was alarmed that there were so many [ATVs] all of a sudden.” One was parked, perhaps defiantly, in front of Town Hall, she said.

The mayor said she understands Henning’s concerns and the pressure he is working under as the town’s only law enforcement officer (Winthrop is currently attempting to hire a deputy). “He has a difficult job to do … He’s had a lot of things to deal with. … We’ll figure it out.”

Henning acknowledged his frustration, but agreed with the mayor as to figuring out how to work well together.

‘Poorly written’ statue

Is there an effective legal difference between a decision not to allow ATVs — which is the action the Winthrop Town Council took — and adopting an ordinance that specifically bans ATVs?

Possibly, according to Melanie Rowland, a local attorney and Methow Valley Citizens Council board member.

Rowland said that although the state’s ATV statute is “poorly written,” it provides that ATVs are not allowed on a town’s streets unless the town says they are OK — and that state highways are exempt from town jurisdiction.

That provision is “not qualified in any way,” she said.

“Highway 20 was opened by statue, and Winthrop hasn’t closed it … and it’s confusing as to whether they can,” Rowland said.

“There are contradictory provisions in the law,” which may not be resolved unless someone is cited and challenges it, she said. “Until a court decides, there’s nothing else to clarify it. … It would be nice to establish once and for all.”

DeTro said he expects the state legislation will be reviewed and revised. “They [legislators] didn’t realize all the ramifications,” he said.

Incident in Twisp

The Winthrop incident follows by two months a confrontation about ATV usage in Twisp that involved a county employee.

Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow said he enforces the town’s prohibition against ATVs on all town streets, including Highway 20 where it runs through Twisp.

According to an investigative report filed by Budrow in early July, the county employee had ridden an ATV to a service station on Highway 20 in Twisp. A local resident called police to report that “the owner of the ATV was arguing with local subjects about it being legal for him to drive the ATV on SR20,” according to the police report.

According to Budrow’s subsequent report, the police chief contacted the ATV’s owner at the service station and advised him that “he was incorrect and that the Town has jurisdiction over the portion of the highway within the Town Boundaries when it pertains to ATVs, and there are no ATVs allowed within the Town of Twisp.”

The ATV owner “said I was wrong and tried to argue with me over it,” Budrow said in his report. Budrow told the ATV owner he couldn’t drive the vehicle home.

At some point, Budrow said, the original complainant and another person walked into the service station, and the ATV owner called the complainant an obscene name and threatened to use his authority as a county employee to have the complainant’s vehicle and horse trailer towed.

Budrow confirmed the contents of that report this week.