‘Healing’ needed in wake of firing controversy
By Don Nelson
The aftershocks of Winthrop Mayor Anne Acheson’s firing of Marshal Hal Henning continued to rumble through last week’s town council meeting, even though the issue wasn’t specifically on the agenda.
Acheson fired Henning on Feb. 22, setting off a spirited public debate that has included both criticisms and defense of the mayor, and calls for her resignation from residents as well as a couple of council members. Because the firing was a personnel matter, most of the details about it can’t be revealed.
At the past several council meetings, comments from either the audience or council members, or both, have kept the often-heated discussion simmering. A couple of weeks ago, town employees submitted a letter supporting the mayor and lamenting the council’s perceived lack of respect for, and support of, the town’s workers.
Last week’s meeting included more of the same.
Julie Muyllaert, co-owner of Methow Cycle & Sport, read a letter to the council in which she reflected on a decade of attendance at council meetings as a representative of the Winthrop Planning Commission, the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, Methow Valley Long Term Recovery, and as a business owner in Winthrop.
“I’m am writing to express my concern regarding the tone, culture and conduct of the Winthrop Town Council that has developed over the last several years,” Muyllaert said. “Since 2015, I have observed diminishing respect among the Town Council members for one another, for staff and for members of the public. This has been evident through indifference, angry exchanges, misunderstanding of roles and responsibilities, lack of appreciation for different thoughts and opinions and disrespectful behavior.
“Dialogue and debate is critical in matters of town policy and governance, but I believe it must be exercised in a civil and respectful manner.
“This lack of civil discourse and professional conduct is corrosive to our collective efforts in creating, sustaining and enhancing a healthy and vibrant town and community. It does not inspire people to step forward and engage in important and required work including town planning, Westernization, civil service and town governance. And it does not contribute to positive staff morale and a productive work environment.”
“I’m concerned,” Muyllaert said after reading the letter. “I hate to be in this position but I felt it was necessary.”
Tracy McCabe asked the council to consider that “the community, businesses, town staff are not happy … Hal [Henning] is not happy, and you’re not happy.” She suggested that the council review a host of challenging topics including nepotism, perceived conflicts of interest and other operational and policy issues.
An item called “Town Council Meeting Etiquette Discussion” was also on the agenda. Council member Bob DeHart said there “has been a lot of emotion” at recent meetings, and that Acheson should have used her gavel to maintain better control during an incident at the April 5 meeting that involved a town employee who was speaking to the council from the audience. Acheson agreed and apologized for not acting more quickly.
DeHart said he wants everyone concerned to show common sense and respect for each other.
Council member Kellen Northcott objected to town employees offering public comments about their relationship with the council. He said it is “not OK for people to say such things … it was way out of line.”
DeHart said that he appreciates input from all quarters and “you are not being disregarded … we’re doing our best.”
During the council comments period, council member Mike Strulic — who had called for Acheson’s resignation — said that “we have to give Anne a chance … to move toward righting the ship … I hope she can restore confidence in equally and fairly administering discipline to employees.” He called Henning’s firing “a catalyst of years of frustration.”
Council member Rick Northcott, responding to Muyllaert’s letter, said he had not seen the same kinds of issues she raised during his 12-year tenure on the council, but he said there is often misunderstanding among the public about what council members do and what the mayor does.
“Don’t lump me in” with other council members, he said. “I have my own opinions.”
Regarding the issue of whether non-residents should have a voice in how the town operates, especially if they own businesses in Winthrop, Northcott said he appreciates the input but “only certain people [town residents] vote for me.”
As to the recent atmosphere surrounding the town, the council and the mayor, “I’m not happy with this tone from any direction,” including the council, Northcott said.
“We need to get over the animosities,” he said. “It’s over, it’s done … let’s not go back over it … let’s look down the road.”
“We need to work together the next six months,” Northcott added. In November, all five council seats and the mayor’s position will be up for election.
DeHart called for “healing” in the community. Being a council member, he said, “is not as easy as it looks out there … you can get hammered either way you decide.”