Town violated terms of employment, Henning alleges
By Don Nelson
Former Winthrop Marshal Hal Henning has filed a lawsuit naming the town and former Mayor Anne Acheson as defendants in an action alleging that he was illegally fired and that the town violated the terms of his employment.
Acheson fired Henning on Feb. 22 of this year after the mayor and marshal clashed publicly and privately over his authority to oversee the police department and disagreements about his performance. Because Henning’s firing was a personnel action, neither Acheson nor any other town official has commented in any specific detail about the dismissal.
In the lawsuit, Henning says he was fired a few days after filing a formal complaint about Acheson with the Town Council, and that his dismissal therefore violated state protection for “whistleblowers.” He seeks back pay and benefits, “other special and general damages in an amount to be determined at trial,” and attorneys’ fees.
Taken together, the lawsuit and the formal complaint, which the Methow Valley News obtained a copy of, provide more insight about the events leading to Henning’s dismissal. The documents portray a strained employer-employee relationship in which the marshal persistently challenged the mayor’s oversight of his department.
Before Henning took the marshal’s position in May 2016, Winthrop hadn’t had its own police officers since Acting Marshal Ken Bajema resigned in December 2015. Since Henning’s firing and before the hiring of Daniel Tindall as Winthrop marshal in August, the Twisp Police Department provided coverage under a contract with Winthrop.
Henning’s lawsuit was filed in Okanogan County Superior Court on Nov. 14. Henning is represented by the East Wenatchee law firm Lacy Kane & Kube. He referred inquiries about the suit to his attorneys.
Winthrop Town Attorney Scott DeTro said Monday (Dec. 4) that the town had not yet been officially served with the lawsuit so he could not comment. DeTro said the suit will be referred to the town’s insurance company’s defense counsel. Typically, the mayor and other elected officials are indemnified from personal legal actions by the town’s insurance coverage, DeTro said. Contacted this week, Acheson said she had no comment.
History of disputes
In setting forth what he asserts are the facts of the case, Henning notes that he was hired by former Winthrop Mayor Sue Langdalen in May 2016. In the suit, Henning says that Langdalen indicated “that Henning would have full control over scheduling of department personnel, the budget for the department, and all hiring and firing of department personnel,” except the police department clerk. The stipulation about the police clerk was to become a point of contention later.
Langdalen resigned as mayor in September 2016 because she was moving out of town, and was succeeded by Acheson, who was a town council member at the time. According to the lawsuit, “at the initial meeting between Acheson and Henning, Acheson informed Henning that she would be taking over hiring and firing in his department, in direct contradiction to the terms of his employment. Acheson informed Henning that when he was hired, the agreement to hire and terminate was not made with her.”
Henning was the town’s only police officer during his tenure, although the town was budgeted for two full-time officers. He says in the suit that Acheson rejected his recommended candidate to fill a deputy marshal’s position because Acheson was concerned about disciplinary issues in the candidate’s past and that the candidate was not married and might not fit in the community. At the same time, Henning says, Acheson supported another candidate with a more-problematic history of disciplinary actions.
The first major public flare-up between the marshal and mayor occurred in September 2016, after Okanogan County Commissioner Jim DeTro (who is Scott DeTro’s brother) and a group of friends rode all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) into Winthrop and had lunch at a restaurant there. According to Henning, Acheson subsequently directed him to cite the ATV riders because Winthrop’s ordinances don’t permit ATV operations within town limits. Henning responded that he could not legally cite people for infractions that he did not observe.
At a Town Council meeting soon after that incident, Henning and Acheson had a pointed discussion about enforcing the town’s ban on ATVs. Henning said he should be given the latitude and discretion to do his job as he saw fit. Acheson directed the marshal to strictly enforce the ATV ban.
Henning also argued that the ATV riders were operating legally on Highway 20. That assertion was and is a matter of legal dispute. Riverside Avenue is a state route (Highway 20), and Henning’s interpretation of existing law was that the town could not prohibit ATV usage on a state road. However, the ATV riders had to use town streets — on which they are still prohibited from operating — to get to the restaurant, putting them clearly in violation of town ordinances.
Jim DeTro essentially admitted as much in an interview with the Methow Valley News. The county commissioner said that “we wanted to make a statement” that the town’s attitude toward ATVs “is very discriminatory.” (In Twisp, the town’s prohibition against ATV ridership is strictly enforced on all streets including Highway 20.)
Henning’s suit also cites disputes with the police clerk about his authority to supervise her actions on the job. Henning sent a memo to Acheson complaining about the clerk’s “attitude and authoritative behavior,” and the clerk subsequently filed a complaint against Henning, according to the suit.
A meeting including Henning, Acheson and the police clerk, did nothing to resolve what Henning’s lawsuit calls a “hostile environment.”
In February of this year, Henning submitted a proposal to Acheson that would eliminate the police clerk position, transfer some of the clerk’s duties through a contract with Twisp, and save the town about $25,000 a year, according to the lawsuit. Acheson instructed Henning not to put the proposal before the council, the suit says. A few days later, on Feb. 19, Henning filed his formal complaint with the Town Council. On Feb. 22, he was fired.
In the lawsuit, Henning contends that he was terminated “in retaliation for ‘blowing the whistle’ on [Acheson’s] request that Henning illegally issue citations to a specific group of individuals.” The suit also asserts that Henning was dismissed because he raised the breach-of-contract issue based on his agreement with former Mayor Langdalen.
The language in Henning’s lawsuit echoes much of the content in Henning’s formal complaint about Acheson that he submitted to the Town Council. In that document, Henning said that Acheson “has stripped me of all authority over my staff and has interfered with my management of the police clerk by overriding my ability to discipline the clerk for insubordination on two occasions.” Henning noted that the police clerk is the daughter-in-law of Winthrop Town Clerk Michelle Gaines, but did not draw any specific implications about the relationship.
In the complaint, Henning said that Acheson had given him “several below-average reviews that I feel were unwarranted and unfair,” and that “over the past several months, I have exhausted all efforts to appeal to her and allow me to run my department to no avail. Therefore, I have no alternative than to file this formal complaint to the town council.”
A couple of days later, Henning was fired — an action that set off months of public turmoil, town council discussions and speculation about the future of the marshal’s office. Henning’s popularity was often cited in those discussions. He was reportedly well-liked by Winthrop businesspeople and residents, according to testimony at Town Council meetings, and was praised for having a consistent presence in the town.
During his tenure in Winthrop, Henning persuaded the Town Council to increase the basic salaries for Winthrop police officers to attract more applicants, and oversaw moving the marshal’s office to the former Riverside Printing building on a lease basis after the department’s office in the basement of Town Hall flooded for a second time.
After the firing, supporters of Henning jammed the Winthrop Town Council’s small meeting space on March 1 to praise Henning and protest his dismissal, ask for more information about why it happened, and demand that Acheson be “fired” or that the council rescind her decision. The council has no authority to remove Acheson from office. Nor could the council reverse Acheson’s decision, because the mayor-council form of government adopted by Winthrop gives the mayor exclusive hiring and firing authority over department heads. The town code is explicit that the marshal is “subordinate only to the mayor.”
Before the public testimony at that meeting, Acheson said that the firing had been “a long time developing” and that “my only concern is the town.”
Acheson had many defenders as well. At the March 1 meeting, at subsequent council meetings, and in letters to the editor published in the Methow Valley News, several town residents spoke in support of Acheson and decried the abusive tone of some public comments about her. Town employees presented a letter to the council supporting her.
In June 2017, Acheson resigned, saying that her efforts to move the Town Council past the controversy raised by her firing of Henning had proved fruitless.
“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,” Acheson said in a statement at the time.
Acheson said in an interview that she had no second thoughts about her decision to fire Henning.
In a “My Turn” column written for the Methow Valley News and published March 8, 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.”
Acheson, who had earlier said she would not seek re-election as mayor, sought a seat on the Town Council in the November general election, but was defeated by Kirsten Vanderhalf.
Acheson’s departure as mayor raised the possibility that Henning could return as the town marshal. The former marshal said in an interview that “I would come back in heartbeat” if offered the marshal’s job. However, Henning’s return would have required another formal application and interview process, which is the purview of the town’s civil service commission.
At the time, Henning said “I’ve got no ill will toward Anne [Acheson]. I’ve never badmouthed her, and I would thank her for her service.”
Henning’s issues with the town’s mayors started before Acheson took office. Former Mayor Langdalen’s formal employee evaluation of Henning dated Aug. 29, 2016 — a copy of which is included in Henning’s formal complaint to the council — cited several areas where Langdalen thought the marshal “needs improvement,” according to the evaluation’s rating system. Those included reliability, attendance, adherence to policy and interpersonal skills. Henning was rated “good” in productivity, independence and initiative.
In her comments, Langdalen said that “as mayor and supervisor, I am seeing issues.” Langdalen said Henning had not produced a work schedule as requested, and that he was taking off unauthorized time, “leaving the town uncovered or at least that is the way it appears because there is no communication to the contrary.”
“This is only giving the appearance of insubordination which I feel is not a good position for a new employee,” Langdalen said in the review.” Langdalen noted that “there have been no complaints from the public on his [Henning’s] conduct.”
In his response to Langdalen’s review, Henning disputed most her conclusions and said they were “unwarranted.”
In an employee evaluation dated Oct. 28, 2016, then-Mayor Acheson offered her own views. She rated Henning “good” in productivity but “needs improvement” in other areas.
Acheson said in the review that “Marshal Henning has stated he is not comfortable receiving directions regarding enforcement from the mayor or town council … Over the past 60 days I have continued to provide direction at the level I feel appropriate.”
As did Langdalen, Acheson noted that she had received no public complaints about Henning.
In a later evaluation, dated Dec. 29, 2016, again rated Henning “good” in productivity but “needs improvement” in several other areas.
A comment in Acheson’s December review offered some insight into the dispute between Henning and the police clerk: “During investigation of a formal complaint lodged by the police clerk it became evident that Marshal Henning has failed to adhere to Winthrop Marshal Office policy and town policy regarding use of town property which was addressed in a counseling memoranda…”
“In the past 60 days the police clerk has submitted a formal complaint regarding interactions with Marshal Henning,” Acheson said in the December 2016 performance review. “After investigating the complaint, I believe the issue is derived from communications challenges and unclear expectations.”
The “counseling” document the mayor cited alluded to personal use of town equipment and issues with “outreach activities” that “should not impact completion of standard work assignments.” In that same document, Acheson also reminded Henning that “the Marshal’s office is not an autonomous department, independent of Mayoral oversight and/or Winthrop personnel policies.”
In conclusion, Acheson said, “Marshal Henning continues to pursue strong engagement in the community. I am concerned that community engagement may have at times out-prioritized completion of the new PD [police department] office, and the Winthrop Marshal’s policy review. Marshal Henning continues to question the role of the Mayor in operation of the PD and I am concerned that Marshal Henning may expect the PD to be allowed to function as an autonomous department, independent of mayoral oversight. He has raised concerns regarding the role of the Mayor and Town Council in recent meetings, raised concerns with the role of the mayor with me directly and with the town attorney.”
Two months later, Henning was fired.
Before joining the town council, 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.
In an email to the Methow Valley News, Henning said he is currently employed as the public safety director and chief of police in Sand Point, Alaska, overseeing the police, fire and EMS departments with six full-time employees. Henning and his wife still reside in Pateros, and Henning said he works two weeks on duty in Alaska and two weeks off, commuting back and forth. Before he was hired by Winthrop in May 2016, Henning had been police chief in Seldovia, Alaska.
Winthrop’s marshals: a timeline
• December 2013: Marshal Dave Dahlstrom resigns after four years on the job; deputy Ken Bajema named interim marshal
• May 2014: Rikki Schwab hired as marshal
• July 2015: Schwab resigns, Bajema takes over as acting marshal
• December 2015: Bajema resigns, which leaves town with no police officers
• June 2016: Hal Henning hired as marshal by former Mayor Sue Langdalen
• February 2017: Henning fired by Mayor Anne Acheson, which again leaves the town with no police officers
• May 2017: Acheson announces that she won’t seek re-election
• June 2017: Acheson resigns as mayor
• August 2017: Daniel Tindall hired as Winthrop marshal