A Whatcom County resident was arrested last week after he allegedly assaulted the Whatcom County assessor.
County sheriff’s deputies arrested 55-year-old Lincoln Rutter on June 1 after a fractious encounter with county assessor Keith Willnauer. Rutter, who owns a home in the Birch Point area just north of Birch Bay, was arrested on suspicion of intimidating a public servant and fourth degree assault.
Rutter came in to the assessor’s office wanting to know the status of a public records request he had previously made. Willnauer said Rutter became irate after he was told he would have to wait a few days for the documents.
Rutter had asked for the most recent information available on properties near his home in Semiahmoo, Willnauer explained. He pointed out to Rutter he had already given him the information, which was also available on the county assessor’s website.
Rutter disputed this, Willnauer said, and grew increasingly agitated. As the discussion devolved into an argument, Willnauer said Rutter grabbed him by his necktie and pulled him across the customer service counter, lifting Willnauer off the floor.
“It was reprehensible, as far as behavior,” Willnauer said.
As Rutter grabbed Willnauer, one of his employees rushed toward the counter yelling loudly for Rutter to stop. Willnauer said the incident lasted 10 to 15 seconds after which sheriff’s deputies were called.
”I want to tell you, it was pretty profound,” Willnauer said. “It has never happened to me in my 23 years of being an assessor, and it has never happened to me in my life,” he said.
Willnauer said he was not permanently hurt from the incident, but does have a sizable bruise on his chin. Willnauer said being thrashed around by his necktie was both physically and emotionally traumatic.
“You know, I was getting hung,” Willnauer said.
Assessor’s office staff have called law enforcement before to remove someone from the office, but never to arrest anyone, Willnauer said. It’s not uncommon for residents to get emotional at the assessor’s office, but Willnauer said the number of times Rutter spoke with the assessor and his usual behavior made Rutter exceptional.
Rutter is one of 10 or so local residents who Willnauer instructs his staff to send directly to him. Willnauer considers interacting with emotionally charged taxpayers part of his job as an elected official.
“On the one hand, I wish it would never happen, but it does, and that’s part of the job description,” Willnauer said. “That’s why I do this. Because it’s challenging.”
The assessor’s office staff have protocols for dealing with unpleasant encounters, and Willnauer said his employees performed correctly. After the incident, Willnauer said he had a meeting with his staff to discuss how similar situations could be handled better in the future.
“I did say, ‘The next time you see the assessor hanging by his neck, rush a little quicker into the situation,’” Willnauer said with a small chuckle.
A phone message left at Rutter’s home number was not returned. Rutter has no criminal history in Washington state.