By Don Nelson
Winthrop Mayor Anne Acheson announced her resignation over the weekend, saying her efforts to move the Town Council forward after the February firing of Marshal Hal Henning had proved fruitless.
The mayor has been the target of criticism — and calls for her resignation — by some Winthrop residents and some Town Council members since she fired Henning. Other residents have spoken in support of Acheson and decried the tone of some public comments, and town employees recently presented a letter to the council supporting her.
Earlier, Acheson said that she would not seek re-election as mayor in November, but would instead seek a seat on the Town Council.
Acheson released a statement explaining her decision to resign:
“I did not seek appointment to the mayoral position. The majority of the council felt that appointing me was more desirable than stepping up to do the job themselves. Although I had reasons for not stepping up, I made the personal sacrifice and commitment and accepted the appointment. I have performed the duties of mayor to the best of my ability and have always placed the interests of the town ahead of my own. I have been professional and gracefully accepted public criticism by community members and council members.
“It has become painfully evident in the last month and a half that despite public statements of intent by council members in open session to ‘find a way forward and heal’ our working relationship, there is no realistic way forward. As a result, I am resigning as mayor, effective June 3. I am encouraged by the increased public involvement and encourage you to remain engaged and provide feedback to council as they consider the significant changes they are discussing, including but not limited to Town Hall staffing, Winthrop’s form of government and the future of Winthrop’s trail projects. I care deeply about and remain committed to Winthrop and its future and will continue to look for opportunities to serve.”
In an interview on Monday, Acheson said she still plans to run for a position on the Town Council. She will face Kirsten Vanderhalf, who also filed for the council position. If elected in November, she would be back on the Town Council in February 2018.
Acheson, who had been a town council member, was appointed to the position of mayor in August 2016 by a vote of other council members. She replaced Sue Langdalen, who resigned because she was moving out of town. Langdalen hired Henning in June 2016.
“I simply could not find a way to keep us moving forward [to other town issues],” Acheson said Monday. “I tried everything I could think of.”
Going forward, Acheson said she hopes the council will focus “on the things they have to do” affecting town policies and planning.
Acheson said he has had no second thoughts about her decision to fire Henning.
Picking a new mayor
Town Clerk Michelle Gaines said on Monday that it’s up to the Town Council to pick a new mayor, either from the existing council members or from the general public. Council member Bob DeHart is mayor pro tem, and will conduct the Wednesday night (June 7) council meeting beginning at 7 p.m. DeHart may or may not be appointed mayor by the council, but in either event, he has filed for the open mayoral position on the November ballot. Sally Ranzau has also filed to run for mayor. The mayor’s position is part-time and pays $1,000 a month.
Henning said on Monday that he would “come back in a heartbeat” if offered the marshal’s job. Since his termination in February, he and his wife have remained in the area and Henning started an investigative consulting firm, which already has clients, he said.
“How could I not [return to Winthrop] given the support I had,” Henning said. “I kind of owe it to the community.”
Gaines said that she has been advised that if Henning wants the job back, it’s not a simple matter of rescinding his firing. She said it’s likely that Henning would have to re-apply through the town’s civil service process.
Henning currently has a claim for damages pending against the town, Gaines said.
Acheson and Gaines said Monday that four applicants for the vacant marshal’s position have qualified to take the oral boards exam, the next step in the hiring process, on June 14. The top three scorers would then be eligible to move on in the process, Gaines said.
At the time of his firing, Henning was the town’s sole law enforcement officer. The town budget provides for two full-time officers. Acheson had rejected a candidate for the vacant deputy marshal position who Henning had recommended.
The Town Council contracted with the Twisp Police Department for two months of coverage that will expire at the end of this month. The town currently has made no other arrangements for interim law enforcement coverage.
Of Acheson’s resignation, Gaines said she was “very disappointed because she [Acheson] was doing a fantastic job … but we will move on and work with whoever is the next mayor.” She said DeHart has been in Town Hall this week in his role as mayor pro tem.
Because Henning’s firing was a personnel matter, and subject to possible litigation, Acheson has not been able to publicly explain the reason for her firing of Henning. In the town’s “strong mayor” form of government, Acheson has the sole authority to hire and fire employees.
Henning was fired after he filed a formal complaint against Acheson in February, alleging breach of contract because he was not allowed the authority he was promised to oversee his department. Acheson, and Langdalen before her, had disagreements with Henning over his operation of the marshal’s office.
Henning was popular with many in town because he was a frequent, friendly, low-key presence around the community. He most recently had been chief of police in the small Alaska town of Seldovia.
During his tenure, Henning moved the marshal’s office into a rented building on Riverside Avenue after the former office, in the basement of Town Hall, flooded again. He also persuaded the council to improve the salary structure for the marshal and deputy positions to encourage candidates to apply for openings in Winthrop.
The firing generated intense public response at a subsequent council meeting, where residents and business operators praised Henning’s tenure as marshal and demanded an explanation for his dismissal. Acheson responded that neither she nor the council could reveal much about her action. Some audience members also called for the council to remove Acheson from office, but the council does not have that authority.
The firing issue has continued to fester since February, and has been a topic of audience and/or council discussion at virtually every council meeting.
Acheson ran unopposed in 2015 to fill the council position vacated by Vern Herrst, who did not seek re-election. Before running for the council position, Acheson was on the town’s planning commission for several years.
Acheson is the office manager for TwispWorks. Before moving to the Methow Valley in 2008, she was a procurement systems analyst at The Boeing Co., where she worked for 22 years.