Usually when someone says “you’re not hearing me,” what they really mean is “you’re not agreeing with me” or “you’re not doing what I want you to do.”
Being heard is not the same as getting your way, as most of us have learned at some point in life.
That practical reality was evident at last week’s meeting of the Winthrop Town Council, where several dozen people showed up to express their displeasure at the recent firing of Marshal Hal Henning by Mayor Anne Acheson.
It was a good lesson in small-town civics in several ways.
People participated, which was encouraging. Anyone who wanted to speak was allowed to. Most didn’t use the five minutes they were allotted. They expressed themselves succinctly and let the next speaker pick up the commentary.
The comment period was generally civil. That we even have to mention the tenor of the meeting is another sign of the times. Many of those in the audience spoke passionately and articulately about their support for Henning, their frustration at not having more information, and their desire for something, anything, to happen to indicate they were being heard. Most were clearly stunned by the mayor’s action and frustrated at what seemed like an absence of transparency.
At the same time, it was also clear that many speakers were woefully ignorant of how their town government works, and were demanding that the council members and mayor do things they simply can’t, or shouldn’t.
When no action came out of Wednesday’s meeting — and no informed observer would have expected any — some people muttered that it was a waste of time.
Well, whose fault was that? Citizenship 101 requires some knowledge of how government works at any level you choose to engage it. If you demand that someone do something they are not legally allowed to do, and then complain that you weren’t “heard,” you’re wasting everyone’s time.
If you think the council members and mayor weren’t listening, you weren’t paying attention. Occasionally they clarified, but they didn’t argue, rebut or challenge anyone’s statements. They got the message, and that’s not the only place they’ve heard it in recent days.
What happens next, and beyond next, is uncertain. There may be legal proceedings, but outcomes are unpredictable. What won’t happen is this: The council won’t replace the mayor, because it can’t. The council won’t countermand Acheson’s decision, because it can’t. Acheson likely won’t step down. Information won’t be much easier to come by because of legal restrictions on what town officials can say.
Some in the audience last week urged council members to call for a vote of no confidence in Acheson. I’d be surprised if they did that, and it wouldn’t have any legal significance. Nor would it get Henning rehired.
I think I heard the word “recall” thrown out by someone. That’s an option, but it’s not as easy as gathering signatures and forcing a vote. In Washington state, the bar is set very high to certify a recall election. A recall can only occur if the targeted public official has engaged in the “commission of some act or acts of malfeasance or misfeasance while in office, or who has violated his oath of office,” as provided in the state constitution. That determination is made by a judge.
State law further requires that “The charge shall state the act or acts complained of in concise language, give a detailed description including the approximate date, location, and nature of each act complained of, be signed by the person or persons making the charge, give their respective post office addresses, and be verified under oath that the person or persons believe the charge or charges to be true and have knowledge of the alleged facts upon which the stated grounds for recall are based.”
In other words, if you want to recall someone, you need to show up with pretty strong documentation that they have abused their office. That’s why successful recall efforts are rare.
As the mayor herself noted, the best way to really be “heard” is at the polls. Let last year’s Okanogan County commissioner elections be testament to that. This year all five town council seats and the mayor’s position will be on the ballot in November. If you’re going to speak up now, speak up then as well.