Turmoil in Tenino: Council gives vote of no confidence to mayor for firing police chief

Nearly 100 people attended the Tenino City Council meeting Tuesday to show their support for former Police Chief John Hutchings, with many calling for the resignation of the mayor who fired him.

The council subsequently issued a 3-2 vote of no confidence in Mayor Bret Brodersen.

Brodersen defended his decision Tuesday, saying Hutchings left the city on the hook by working more hours than his state law enforcement pension allowed.

The police chief’s dismissal has galvanized this small city of about 1,600 residents in south Thurston County. Brodersen said he fired Hutchings on March 25 for working extra hours without approval and for generally overstepping authority.

The council meeting was moved to Tenino Elementary School’s multipurpose room to accommodate the expected crowd.

Several people pleaded with the council to reinstate the chief. Many praised his leadership as an asset that made the community feel safer. One woman carried around a plate of gingerbread cookies with “Hutch” and “resign” written in icing.

Another resident, Rose Oram, presented a petition with 348 signatures and gave an emotional speech in support of Hutchings.

“If I were Hutch, I would not come back to work for someone who fired me. The mayor has to go so that we can have our chief back,” Oram said Tuesday, adding that Hutchings has been “the best thing to happen to our town.”

Tenino resident Julie Graham said Hutchings was known for his humanity and commitment to the city, including his involvement in schools. She said his termination was sudden and disrespectful in the way it was done.

“I thought it was an embarrassment to our community,” Graham told The Olympian. “(Hutchings) really does care. He’s a great man.”

After public testimony, Councilman John O’Callahan made a motion for a vote of no confidence, saying he would stand with the people of the city. Councilman Wayne Fournier echoed that sentiment, which was approved 3-2. Councilman Craig Lester also supported it. Council members Dave Watterson and Sirena Painter were the dissenting votes.

“It seems very evident to everyone in this room, from what I can see, that a bad decision was made,” said Fournier, who is the council’s liaison to the Police Department.

Brodersen said he is moving forward with hiring a new police chief and has no intention to resign. He also addressed accusations that he has been “in hiding” and unwilling to address the matter publicly.

“I take accountability for the decisions I have made,” Brodersen said.

Brodersen told The Olympian that the decision to fire Hutchings was not a cost-saving move.

Hutchings had joined the department in 2012 after retiring from the Olympia Police Department, where he spent 27 years. In order to keep his retirement benefits, Hutchings was limited to working 159.5 or fewer hours a month.

“The city needs to have a chief who is not limited in the amount they can work,” Brodersen told The Olympian.

Between July 2012 and October 2013, Hutchings routinely reported working more than the allotted amount. Documents show Hutchings reported 159.5 hours or fewer in subsequent months.

Records show that Hutchings had tried to work out the situation with the previous mayor, Eric Strawn, who resigned in May 2013. Brodersen was appointed mayor the following month.

The state Department of Retirement Systems reported that the city had failed to report Hutchings’ employment and retirement status. The agency said Hutchings received retirement benefits for 18 months while working for Tenino and that the city must reimburse the state retirement trust fund.

Under state law, if a retiree exceeds the restrictions of post-retirement employment, and if the employer fails to report the employment of the retiree, then the employer is liable for the loss to the retirement trust fund.

In January, the mayor sent a petition asking DRS to overturn or modify its audit findings. The petition denied responsibility for overpayment of benefits.

The state agency upheld its audit findings.