Free-spirited mayor rattles Tenino's old guard
In more ways than just attire, Eric Strawn has brought a new look to the top elective office in this town of 1,600 just south of Olympia.
Seattle Times staff reporter
TENINO, Thurston County —
Meet newly elected Mayor Eric Strawn, 35, who, on this recent Monday at the office, is wearing one of his dozen or so Bob Marley T-shirts.
The T-shirt goes well with the mayor's ponytail and arm-length tattoos that include a large feather signifying his Native-American heritage.
It goes well with the reggae music streaming out of his laptop, and the huge green, red and yellow striped flag, with crossed paddles in the middle, honoring native Hawaiians, that the mayor hung on the office wall as a memento of when he and his family lived there for five years.
In more ways than just attire, Strawn has brought a new look to the top elective office in this city of 1,600 just south of Olympia.
Strawn is shaking things up big time with the political old guard here. And the old guard, many two or more decades older than Strawn, is fighting back as only can happen in small-town politics.
If you like Elmore Leonard characters in "Get Shorty" novels, you will appreciate the story around the new mayor.
Strawn was welcomed to City Hall by finding a portion of the small building barred to him by a locked metal gate, should he decide to work after-hours or on weekends when no one else was around.
That was ordered by the city's clerk-treasurer, who's not even elected but appointed, and by the previous mayor, Ken Jones, 69, who had just been voted out after two terms.
In the Nov. 8 election, Strawn got 57 percent of the vote, 249 to 188.
He had run on a platform of "bring back a feeling of community," "a place where the citizens can be proud to call home" and "can't wait for business to find Tenino, need to seek out business FOR Tenino."
Strawn, a Tenino native who never finished high school and works at a beef-slaughtering plant ("People ask me, 'Oh, you kill cows?' I say, 'I just cut their heads off.' It's a job that has to be done.") readily admitted to having no political experience.
But, says Strawn, "I am competent, literate and cognitive with the ability and willingness to learn."
"Young and stupid"
The locals were obviously in a mood for change.
The old guard obviously less so.
The major reason clerk Betty Garrison, 57, and Jones gave for the metal gate was Strawn's two guilty pleas a decade ago.
There was a third-degree theft charge for taking a car radio from his uncle's detailing shop, says Strawn, for which he got 90 days suspended. "I was young and stupid," he explains.
And there was the marijuana possession that's on his rap sheet. Cops found a bowl of pot in his car, says Strawn, and he was fined $250.
The previous mayor says Strawn was locked out of that front room because it contained file cabinets with court records. Jones says about Strawn, "Those are court records with his name, and his friends' names. You figure it out for yourself."
Strawn wonders what exactly he could have done with those records. It's not as if his rap sheet can't be found on a computerized court search.
The gate came down in the first week of January after — to allay the fears of anyone who thought he might go through the records — Strawn ordered locks that cost around $15 for the three file cabinets that contained the records.
Last week, Strawn fired Garrison. You can understand how the mayor and the clerk didn't start off on the best of terms.
She still doesn't understand why the new mayor got upset about being locked out.
"I don't see what the big deal was," she says.
And that is just one of Strawn's encounters.
The new mayor is not the kind who backs down when he feels offended.
Not long ago, he wrote up a well-meaning proclamation to honor a military veteran from Tenino.
The proclamation offended the grammatical sensibilities of Dawna Kelley-Donohue, 60, who's been on the council for 14 years. She let loose with an email.
It said, in part, about Strawn's writing, "The numerous grammatical and contextual errors should be obvious in every one of the paragraphs and need to be corrected. The second and third paragraphs are a jumble of separate thoughts that do not tie together into coherent sentences. This document does not reflect the professionalism that is expected in the City's correspondence."
Strawn, who considers himself an articulate individual, emailed Kelley-Donahue back that she had written "a metaphorically troglodytic message to the new Mayor."
Many wanted a change
The locals in Tenino seem to be willing to give Strawn a chance, despite his rap sheet that also includes some 20 traffic offenses beginning at age 16, ranging from speeding to an expired license.
Scott Hineline, owner of Scotty B's, a local restaurant, says the general attitude of his customers about the new mayor is, "OK, so he smoked some pot, big deal."
Gar Warren, manager of the Tenino Eagles Lodge No. 564, another local hangout, says about the political old guard, "They lost the pulse of the city. I think people were just fed up. I hear a lot of the customers here talk, and it surprised me at the amount of older people wanting a change. I hope Eric comes through."
Warren says something else that upset voters here was the bill for a $19 million project connecting the town's 676 septic systems to a sewer line.
Even after grant money helped pay for the system, the city still is on the hook for $10.5 million, says Ron Kemp, the town's development service director.
Kemp says the sewer project translates to about $100 a month per residence that used to have a septic tank, a big chunk in a dour economy, in a town of modest homes.
The old guard was leery enough of what Strawn would do once he was in office that it tried to curtail his powers before he was sworn in. The rumor was that Strawn was planning to start firing city staffers. So before he took office Jan. 1, the council passed an ordinance taking away the mayor's power to fire employees without council approval.
Council members later acknowledged that portion of the ordinance was unenforceable because state law gives the mayor such powers.
Strawn has made no secret that he has his problems with Tenino Police Chief Sean Gallagher and wouldn't mind seeing him go.
Among a couple of encounters that Strawn says he's had with the chief was one that took place in November 2010 in front of City Hall.
"Sean Gallagher started asking me about my past. He said I was selling methamphetamine. I've never had anything to do with selling that stuff. It offended me when he called me that," says Strawn.
Soon thereafter, Strawn decided to run for mayor.
"I felt the citizens weren't being treated fairly by the city government, including the chief," says Strawn.
As for the encounter with Strawn, Gallagher, 53, says he was "a bystander" and that another officer "confronted" Strawn with "information that he may have been involved in drugs ... I can't go into the specifics."
"Nothing happened," says Gallagher.
Nothing happened other than it left Strawn steaming.
As befitting the characters populating this story, Gallagher himself has an unusual incident in his background.
He says he retired from the New York Police Department in 2009 as a sergeant, and then happened to see a posting for the Tenino job.
In 2010, Gallagher received a $125,000 settlement from New York City, according to the New York Daily News, after he and another sergeant sued the NYPD for sexual harassment, accusing a lieutenant of fondling himself in front of them. The Daily News said that according to court papers, a dermatologist testified at a department trial that the lieutenant was treated for jock itch for a decade.
Gallagher says he doesn't want to discuss the case.
He also says he plans to retire as Tenino police chief.
Certainly, the only way he can be let go by the city is for cause, as working for the small Police Department (four officers, plus the chief) is considered a civil-service job.
Meanwhile, the new mayor has plans for change in the city, such as getting a grant for putting in a bike, skateboarding and basketball area in the city's park and asking the local bank to sponsor the maintenance on the city's historic quarry pool (in the late 1800s the town was a major sandstone-quarry center).
Right now, Strawn is taking time off from his job at the slaughtering plant to devote his time to the mayor's job that pays all of $600 a month.
By the way, these days, the new mayor has a prescription for medical marijuana from an Olympia naturopath.
Strawn says he needs the pot for chronic pain and arthritis after surgeries on his knees and an elbow, and smokes a small amount half a dozen times a month.
But, given how things are going with the old guard, you could add tension headaches as reason for wanting a little toke.
News researchers Gene Balk and David Turim contributed to this report. Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org