Photo by Don Nelson

Jeff Hardy spoke at last week’s Winthrop Town Council meeting, where a large crowd gathered to question the recent firing of Marshal Hal Henning.

Public comments reflect frustration, anger at mayor’s action, lack of info

By Don Nelson

Supporters of fired Winthrop Marshal Hal Henning jammed the Winthrop Town Council’s small meeting space last week to praise Henning and protest his dismissal, ask for more information about why it happened, and demand that Mayor Anne Acheson be “fired” or that the council rescind her decision.

For most of them, it was a frustrating evening.

Very little additional information was forthcoming, because Acheson’s decision to fire Henning on Feb. 22 was a confidential personnel action that could possibly end up in litigation. The council has no authority to remove Acheson from office. Nor can the council reverse Acheson’s decision, because the mayor-council form of government adopted by Winthrop gives the mayor exclusive hiring and firing authority.

After listening to public comment about the firing, the council held a 45-minute executive session to consider a complaint filed by Henning against Acheson, over several issues related to his authority to act as a department head. The complaint specifies instances in which Henning believed that his decision-making authority was being interfered with.

After emerging from the executive session — where personnel matters may be discussed, but no action can be taken — council members told remaining members of the audience that they would take no action “at this time.”

Before the public testimony, Acheson said that the firing had been “a long time developing” and that “my only concern is the town.” Other than that, she said little at the meeting, where most of the commentary was complimentary of Henning but some of it was critical of
Acheson.

Temporary coverage

In a “My Turn” column written for this week’s Methow Valley News, Acheson said that, “In terminating Marshal Hal Henning’s employment with the town, I considered a wide range of factors related to his position and I made a difficult and apparently unpopular decision. Some do not understand how I could make this choice and are frustrated by the lack of explanation. Employment and privacy laws prevent me from providing the answers that some are seeking. Opinions have been formed based on the incomplete information that is publicly available. Since the decision has not been reversed and I was not removed from office, some in the community may feel their voices have not been heard.”

Acheson said that just because no action was taken, it doesn’t mean that citizens weren’t heard. For the full column, see page A4.

Henning’s firing once again leaves the town with no police officers. Henning was hired in June 2016. He came to Winthrop from Seldovia, Alaska, on the Kenai Peninsula, where he had been the police chief. He had been attempting to hire a deputy when he was fired.

At last week’s meeting, Acheson said the town is making arrangements for temporary police coverage with other law enforcement agencies, including the Twisp Police Department and the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office. She said the town will continue to seek candidates for the vacant marshal and deputy positions.

Packed room

Town Council meetings provide for a public comments session at the beginning of each regular meeting, with speakers limited to five minutes each. It was expected that Henning’s firing would draw town residents who have questions or comments about the mayor’s action, and concerns about what will happen next to ensure that the town has a law enforcement presence.

That proved to be the case, as more than 50 people crowded into the Hen House room, the small space at the back of the Winthrop Barn where the council holds its regular meetings.

Bart Bradshaw, who owns businesses in Winthrop and has lived here for more than 30 years, lamented the “revolving door” of marshals and deputies in recent years. “Are you seeking or expecting perfection?” he asked.

“We don’t want a lesser police force, but we need to consider expectations,” Bradshaw said.

Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover, a Methow Valley resident who said he was speaking as a private citizen, said that while he was manager of North Valley Lumber, Henning was the only police officer who ever visited the business on Horizon Flats.

Several business owners echoed Hover’s observation, noting that Henning made an effort to stop in, introduce himself and make his presence felt in a low-key way. Other commenters asked for an explanation, said letting Henning go would be a mistake, or urged the council to take some kind of action to restore the marshal to his job.

Rich Stahl, co-owner of Methow River Lodge and Cabins, said that “it was embarrassing and ridiculous that he [Henning] was treated the way he was.”

“He’s the community’s marshal, not the council’s marshal or the mayor’s marshal,” said Brian Sweet, co-owner of Cascades Outdoor Store in Winthrop.

Don Carlson said he appreciated his interactions with Henning, and that “he’s the best I’ve seen.”

Bob Gamblin, co-owner of Lariat Coffee Roasters on Horizon Flats, said “I’m worried about the lack of policing … the marshal is a perfect fit for this town.”

Concerns expressed

Samplings of other comments included:

• “He’s somebody who cares.”

• “Hal’s someone we really need here.”

• Henning’s firing “seems crazy to me.”

• “It better be something really serious.”

• “You need to humble yourselves and say you made a mistake.”

• “Why wasn’t he being allowed the authority to run his office as he sees fit, not micromanaged?”

• “He’s been fair, kind and we should hire him back.”

• “Reconsider or step down.”

• “It’s terrible what she’s done, it’s not right.”

• “Hal has earned the trust and support of the community.”

• “He should be given the latitude to do his job.

Dr. Allison Fitzgerald was the only person present who said she supported the mayor. “She does a good job … she gives her heart to the community,” Fitzgerald said of Acheson.

Henning, who was at the back of the room for the council meeting, said that “I can only express the humbleness I feel right now. I love this community and put my heart and soul into it.”

Henning said last week that he has hired an attorney to look into possible legal responses.