About 45 people marched through downtown Tenino Wednesday to support Police Chief John Hutchings and called for the resignation of the mayor who fired him.
Many longtime residents said Wednesday’s protest was the first of its kind in recent memory. Passing motorists honked with approval while people carried signs toward City Hall with messages such as “Tenino supports our chief” and “Chief Hutch wanted safe schools.”
They also waved signs that blasted Mayor Bret Brodersen for terminating Hutchings’ employment without warning.
According to a press release issued this week, Brodersen said the chief was fired March 25 for working extra hours and hiring a reserve officer without approval, and for generally overstepping his authority.
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The decision sparked outrage in this south Thurston County city of about 1,600 residents, many of whom saw Hutchings as a positive force for schools and the local business community.
Hutchings was hired in July 2012 amid a turbulent time for the city that included controversial behavior by the previous police chief as well as then-mayor Eric Strawn.
Howard Wheeler, who helped organize Wednesday’s protest, said Hutchings had become the most visible and beloved public official in Tenino.
Another source of frustration, he said, has been the mayor’s evasiveness over the issue. The mayor was not at City Hall when protesters arrived Wednesday chanting “Bring Hutch back.”
“We want answers,” said Wheeler, who promised more protests. “Brodersen needs to take the high road and bow out.”
Tenino City Councilman John O’Callahan said the April 14 council meeting is likely the next and best opportunity for the public to confront the mayor. O’Callahan said that Brodersen blindsided the city with the decision, which may have had roots dating to the chief’s hiring in 2012. At the time, Brodersen was a city council member who had opposed hiring Hutchings, O’Callahan said.
“This mayor was looking to find a reason,” said O’Callahan, adding that Brodersen’s resignation is “the only way I see this getting resolved.”
Hutchings could not be reached for this report, and Brodersen did not return a call for comment Wednesday.
Several people have voiced their opinions on a Facebook page called “Hometown Tenino.” A post from Deb Hutchings, the former police chief’s wife, said there was no explanation or due process when her husband was fired last week.
“We are still reeling,” she wrote in a post that thanked supporters. “We do not know what the future holds.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, an online petition had gathered 337 signatures to support the reinstatement of Hutchings.
Local resident Rose Oram launched the petition last week over what she called an arbitrary decision by the mayor. She decried the lack of information and public involvement related to the firing.
“Chief Hutchings should be in his position. We love him and want him to come back,” Oram said Wednesday. “If we’re going to choose between the chief and the mayor, then the mayor has got to go.”
Before coming to Tenino, Hutchings spent 27 years at the Olympia Police Department. While in Olympia, he received a Fulbright Police Research Fellowship that took him to England to research stress on police officers. In Tenino, he was paid a monthly salary of $4,428 (about $53,000 annually).
In his press release, Brodersen said recruitment is underway for a new police chief. He also addressed a rumor that had been circulating over whether Tenino would dismantle its four-officer department and instead contract with the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office.
“It has never been my intention to abandon a police force or contract with another jurisdiction,” Brodersen wrote. “I look forward to bringing new leadership to the police department that continues to serve the needs of the citizens of Tenino and build the department to the best of its potential.”