At its Wednesday special meeting, after the newspaper went to press, the Twisp Town Council approved a contract with the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office for police coverage through the end of 2023, effective immediately.
According to the agreement, “Police protection and law enforcement services will be provided to the town to the maximum extent allowable with manpower and equipment, including routine patrols and responding to complaints as appropriate, at the discretion of the Sheriff. In so much as possible the Sheriff will endeavor to keep the same Deputies assigned to patrol near the town and in the upper Methow Valley area.”
Under the agreement, the town will pay the county $500 per call response.
Sheehan’s departure leaves town with no officers
The Town of Twisp is scrambling to arrange for temporary police protection as the departure of interim Chief Ty Sheehan leaves Twisp with no officers.
The most likely short-term solution appears to be a contract agreement with the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office to cover Twisp until the town hires a full-time chief. The Town Council scheduled a special meeting for Wednesday (May 3), after the News went to press, to discuss a potential contract. Mayor Soo Ing-Moody and council member Aaron Studen had been in Okanogan on Monday to discuss that possibility with representatives of the sheriff’s office.
Ing-Moody said earlier this week that any agreement with the county would be intended to work “as a placeholder” through the end of this year, and that she hoped the town and county could reach an agreement “soon.”
It likely can’t some too soon to reassure the town’s residents that when they call 911, they will get a helpful response.
Sheehan was the last of the town’s three officers after former Chief Paul Budrow was elected county sheriff last November, and officer Stephen Purtell resigned in April to take a job with the county sheriff’s office. Sheehan provided copies of emails and memos to the newspaper, going back several months, that he says document his warnings that the department could soon be unmanned because of his intent to leave by the end of May.
Tensions came to a head at last week’s town council meeting, when Sheehan confronted the council about what he said was its failure to heed those warnings. He also said the town had rebuffed a suggestion to open early contract negotiations to address salary issues — a claim that the mayor said was not accurate.
The three-officer Twisp department has been short-staffed since Budrow was elected county sheriff. Sheehan, a longtime police officer for Twisp, took over as interim chief while the town began its search for Budrow’s successor — which so far has drawn no applicants.
Sheehan informed Ing-Moody and the town council in February that he intended to leave the department by the end of May, according to documents he provided, and that town officials needed to prepare for that eventuality. Purtell resigned effective April 20.
In a six-page memo to the mayor and council dated April 14, after Purtell announced his resignation, Sheehan listed the challenges the town would face after his departure and some possible interim solutions including contracting with the sheriff’s office.
Sheehan, who has accepted another position that he hasn’t announced yet, completed his final patrol shift at 10 p.m. last Thursday (April 27), although because of accumulated vacation time he remains on the payroll until May 31.
A closed executive session of the council was called for Tuesday (May 2) to “review performance of a public employee,” presumably Sheehan. In a memo written to the mayor and council on Monday night, Sheehan said he would not challenge any actions or decisions related to his employment, including suspension or removal as interim chief, since he is leaving the department anyway.
The memo also summarized issues Sheehan has raised over the past several months in numerous detailed emails to Ing-Moody, other staff and council members: “I have made multiple advance warnings to you (verbal and written) that you were on the verge of losing your entire Police Department. I provided you with a pathway to avoid that outcome. I have made gentle suggestions. I have made NOT so gentle suggestions. I have repeatedly warned and reminded you exactly when this day was coming.”
Sheehan has expressed frustration, in interviews with the newspaper and email correspondence with town officials, with what he characterized as the town’s lack of preparation in anticipating that it would lose all its police officers by May 31. Sheehan and Purtell have both said in correspondence with town officials that the town’s response to police department needs and challenges has often been indifferent or inadequate — not just recently, but for several years. The officers joined the Teamsters union last year, and negotiated a contract with the town.
When Purtell left Twisp to join the county sheriff’s office, his resignation letter said he was grateful for the time spent in Twisp and proud of the department’s accomplishments. But the letter also expressed some disappointments about the town’s response to officers’ concerns about pay, benefits and retention.
Tense council meeting
Sheehan raised some of the department’s grievances at last week’s Town Council meeting, which included a testy exchange with Ing-Moody.
“I’ve been very clear,” Sheehan said at the meeting. “At the end of May I am leaving the department.” Sheehan said that he had asked the town to “cash out” his accumulated vacation time so he could continue working through the end of May, but was turned down.
“I hope you have some good answers,” Sheehan added. “You are at the point of no return in salvaging your own agency.”
Ing-Moody said at the meeting that the town hopes to rebuild the police department, not disband it. “The question is how to make it work, not whether to make it work,” she said.
At last week’s council meeting, Sheehan referenced a meeting that he and Purtell had with Ing-Moody in March where the officers asked that the town begin discussions related to the current labor contract before it expires later this year. At the council meeting, Sheehan and Ing-Moody, in sharp verbal exchange, each accused the other of misrepresenting the outcome of that March meeting.
“All they had to do was open negotiations,” Sheehan said in a later interview with the newspaper.
In a separate interview, Ing-Moody said she told the officers that the town could not initiate such negotiations unilaterally, but could respond to a formal request from the union.
“Their understanding of what was said is different from my understanding of what I believe I said,” Ing-Moody said. “They did not put in a [formal] request for a reopening” of the contract. She added that the town has “little flexibility to make changes” in police pay or other expenditures until a new 2024 budget is developed.
At the council meeting, Sheehan said that Purtell might have agreed to stay on if the town had agreed to negotiate. Ing-Moody responded that the town “would entertain a request if it comes to us.”
“That is patently untrue,” Sheehan said.
“It’s absolutely true,” Ing-Moody responded.
Intent to keep department
In interviews this week, Ing-Moody and Studen emphasized that the town’s long-term intent is to maintain its own police department, but the process may take some time because of the challenges all towns face in hiring qualified police officers these days.
Maintaining adequate police forces has become challenging for communities around the country, from small towns to large cities. Larger cities like Seattle have lost officers as some call for defunding of police departments and demand accountability for police actions; small communities struggle to attract and pay trained officers. Despite Twisp’s advertising and recruitment efforts since Budrow left the department, Ing-Moody said — including a $10,000 hiring bonus — there have been no applicants for the chief’s job. Budrow was paid a little over $84,000 per year when he left the department.
To stay competitive, the town may direct some existing budgeted funds to boosting the police chief’s salary and supporting a two-officer department until it can figure out how to fund three positions, Ing-Moody said.
Ing-Moody and Studen denied that the town has ignored concerns about how to deal with a reduced police department. They said the Public Safety Committee has been discussing how to replace Budrow and keep the police department intact since shortly after the former chief was elected sheriff, and the Finance Committee has been looking at budget options.
“We ask residents to please be patient and understanding during the transition,” Studen said.
At last week’s meeting, Council member Hans Smith said the town needs to consider several approaches for short-term and long-term solutions, including cooperative agreements with other agencies.
Studen said in this week’s interview that there have been informal communications between Twisp and Winthrop town council members about interim arrangements for police service and, longer-term, a possible merger of or partnership between the departments.
Winthrop Mayor Sally Ranzau has said she doesn’t support either idea. She said that the Winthrop Marshal’s Office has too many demands on its staff now to enter into a services agreement, and that she would not favor a merger.
During a recent Winthrop Town Council discussion, Ranzau said the Winthrop Marshal’s Office has a “solid base” and Winthrop’s policing needs are different from Twisp’s, particularly during the busy summer months. Winthrop council member Ben Nelson said that Winthrop should be open to discussing a cooperative agreement.
In 2017, at a time when the Winthrop Marshal’s Office was in disarray and had no officers, Twisp provided police services on a contract basis until Winthrop was able to make some hires. “We are grateful for Twisp’s support when our Marshal’s Office was in turmoil,” Ranzau said in an email.
Winthrop Marshal Doug Johnson, who has been in the position since April 2019, is retiring at the end of May. The town has not announced a replacement. Winthrop’s other two other officers, Ken Bajema and Nic Plemel, did not apply for the marshal’s job, Ranzau said.
In an interview last week, Ing-Moody said she was open to discussing any options “to see what we can do to have a sustainable department.” In the meantime, the priority is to provide an interim police presence for the town.
“This situation is not going to be resolved in the short term,” she said.