By Don Nelson
Winthrop Mayor Anne Acheson has announced her resignation, saying her efforts to move the Town Council forward after the controversy raised by her February firing of former Marshal Hal Henning had proved fruitless.
Acheson announced her resignation, which was effective as of June 3, last weekend in an email to other Town Council members and town staff. She said her decision to resign was “a long time coming” but made reluctantly.
“I simply could not find a way to keep us moving forward [to other town issues],” Acheson said in an interview on Monday (June 5). “I tried everything I could think of.”
Acheson was referring to continued dissension among some council members about her decision to fire Henning. Acheson has been the target of criticism, and calls for her resignation, by some Winthrop residents and some Town Council members since she dismissed Henning.
Other town 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. She said this week that she still intends to seek the council seat. She will face Kirsten Vanderhalf, who also filed for the council position. If elected in November, Acheson would be back on the Town Council in February 2018.
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 then 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.”
Acheson said she has had no second thoughts about her decision to fire Henning.
She will not attend the regular council meeting this Wednesday (June 7, at 7 p.m.) but will likely attend future meetings as an observer, she said.
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 had hired Henning in June 2016.
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 council meeting.
DeHart may or may not be appointed mayor by 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.
Gaines said DeHart has been in Town Hall this week in his role as mayor pro tem.
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.”
Return of Henning?
Acheson’s departure raised the possibility that Henning could return as the town marshal. 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 had the sole authority to hire and fire employees.
Gaines said Monday 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.
The former marshal said Monday that “I would come back in 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.
“I’m excited about the possibility of coming back,” Henning said. “How could I not [return to Winthrop] given the support I had? I kind of owe it to the community.”
Henning said he is ready to go back to work in Winthrop immediately. As for settling his claim for damages, Henning said he would likely seek back pay and attorney fees if he becomes marshal again. And he said he would likely seek a contract, possibly for two years guaranteeing him authority over his department. He said any such agreement would not be one-sided but would include “checks on me.”
Henning said “I’ve got no ill will toward Anne [Acheson]. I’ve never badmouthed her, and I would thank her for her service.”
“I’m hoping I get a call,” he said.
Meanwhile, the town has continued to solicit applicants for the marshal’s position. Acheson and Gaines said Monday that four applicants for the vacant position have qualified to take the oral boards exam, the next step on 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.
Henning’s 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.
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.
In the interview this week, Acheson said that she had hoped to persuade the council to focus on other town issues and challenges, and to help calm things down. “I tried to work with the other council members to get them to see that public perceptions were changing” about their recent direction. The council members’ focus on town staff members “is disconcerting,” she said.
“I wanted to serve on the council,” Acheson said. “I never sought or wanted the mayor’s position. I had reservations about it, and it has been challenging from the very beginning.”
Town Hall staffers have said that Acheson worked hard to learn about city processes and policies, treated the staff well, and was responsive to city inquiries.
“I know there is support for me in the community,” Acheson said. “And I had a lot of support from staff. That made it hard to step down. They are an amazing group of people who want to do what’s right for the town.”
“The town can run without a mayor, it can run without a council, but it can’t run without a staff,” Acheson said.
At the same time, she said that one reason for her decision to resign was because of what she called “a really bad tenor and tone” among other council members toward her.
“They should be focused on bigger issues,” she said.
And, she said, “the community has to step up and say what’s important to them.”
As to recent discussions about changing the town’s form of governance to a city manager system, Acheson said the town’s leaders need to consider the potential costs — and how it might affect the future of the marshal’s office.
“You can have a police department or a city manager, but you can’t have both,” she said.
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. Her brother Dave Acheson served two terms as Winthrop’s mayor.
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.