The sudden firing of Tenino’s police chief has sparked outrage among residents in this small city in south Thurston County.
An online petition with 250 signatures is circulating to support the reinstatement of Police Chief John Hutchings, who was fired March 25 by Mayor Bret Brodersen.
Residents are also planning to march to City Hall at 1 p.m. Wednesday to protest the decision. Some people on social media are calling for the mayor to resign and are criticizing Brodersen’s lack of transparency.
Brodersen told The Olympian that the recruitment process is underway for hiring a new police chief and said the termination was not related to a personality conflict.
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“There were several areas that made me take a strong hard look at what the needs of our community are for a police chief,” Brodersen said. “Despite the unpopularity of my decision, it was a decision that I made with the best interest of our community in mind, and it’s a decision I believe will allow our community to move forward.”
In a press release sent Monday afternoon, the mayor said Hutchings was terminated for working extra hours and hiring a reserve officer without proper authorization, and for generally overstepping his authority.
The press release states that the city is appealing an audit from the Washington State Department of Retirement Systems based on the number of hours Hutchings had reported working.
“The city is incurring additional costs to petition this liability and doing everything possible to prevent a monetary penalty, which could cripple the city’s budget,” the mayor wrote.
Brodersen wrote that Hutchings recently added a reserve police officer to the city payroll without approval from the mayor and Tenino City Council. The officer was paid $10,574 over the past several months, the mayor wrote, adding the payment violates a city code that prohibits payment of reserve officers.
“This type of behavior exposes the city to potential liability that cannot be tolerated,” the mayor wrote.
Hutchings could not be reached for comment.
City Councilman Wayne Fournier, who serves as the police liaison, told The Olympian he was blindsided by the mayor’s announcement. Fournier had been briefed on some “personality conflicts,” he said, but otherwise had no clue of the mayor’s plan to terminate Hutchings.
“There was no issue communicated to us that would lead us to believe we’d be in the position we’re in today,” he said, adding that the mayor has denied the council’s request for a meeting on the matter. “We’re all still kind of shocked.”
Fournier said Hutchings has played a positive role in restoring public trust since taking the job in mid-2012, after former chief Sean Gallagher resigned amid misconduct allegations. Hutchings was visible in the business community as well as in local schools, Fournier said.
Before coming to Tenino, Hutchings spent 27 years at the Olympia Police Department. During his tenure in Olympia, he won a Fulbright Police Research Fellowship that took him to England to study critical-incident stress on police officers.
“The chief was basically the face for the city in a lot of places,” Fournier said.
Brodersen also took over as mayor during a turbulent time for the city. He was appointed to the position in June 2013 when Eric Strawn resigned after a controversial 16-month stint as mayor. In his mayoral campaign announcement, Brodersen said one of his goals was to increase transparency and citizen engagement in city government.