The 7,000 residents of Sequim, Washington, nestled in a valley on the Olympic peninsula two hours west of Seattle, are grappling with a big question: Has the QAnon conspiracy taken hold of their mayor?
"Why do you publicly support QAnon," two callers asked this week during the mayor's monthly "Coffee with the Mayor" community access radio broadcast.
"What does the Punisher symbol mean to you?" asked another caller, referring to the comic book antihero icon that has been adopted by QAnon followers. "Are you concerned that the publicity received as a result of your stance on QAnon will hurt our reputation?"
Mayor William Armacost answered each question on his radio program calmly, patiently and with scant apology about his growing internet attention as a mayor who called the conspiracy theory a "truth movement."
"I have never publicly stated I support it," Armacost said, referring to QAnon. "I'm an information seeker. I should have kept my personal feelings to myself. I'm here to talk about our beautiful little town of Sequim."
But a sizable number Sequim residents have organized a petition to reinstate the city manager, who resigned earlier this month. They call the mayor a dangerous threat after a number of suspected QAnon followers were arrested for their alleged roles in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection.
"The people that led the Capitol insurrection were Q leaders," said Shenna Younger, a Sequim resident leading Sequim Good Governance League, a grassroots movement that hopes to unseat the mayor. "This isn't just a conspiracy theory. This is serious."
'QANON IS A TRUTH MOVEMENT'
Sequim's city council centres around a salaried city manager that serves as chief executive. That means Armacost doesn't have the power allotted to most U.S. mayors.
Most Sequim residents barely paid attention to Armacost until last August, when he broadcast a stunning statement during "Coffee with the Mayor."
Asked about QAnon, the mayor replied, "QAnon is a truth movement that encourages you to think for yourself. If you remove Q from that equation, it's patriots from all over the world fighting for humanity, truth, freedom and saving children and others from human trafficking."
Armacost then encouraged his listeners to watch a QAnon video filled with the conspiracy theories about a cabal of Satan-worshiping, child sex-trafficking group formed as part of a "deep state" seeking to annihilate Donald Trump.
The video echoes the unfounded claims promoted by QAnon. Since its origin, QAnon moved from the darkest corners of the internet as a single conspiracy theory to baseless theories about elections, global financial systems and human trafficking.
Shortly after Armacost's comments about QAnon, the city manager, Charlie Bush, issued a press release with Armacost. Bush highlighted that the "Coffee with the Mayor" forum is designed to discuss issues specific to Sequim. And he noted how irregular the national comments were for the mayor. In that same release, the mayor called his decision to respond to a QAnon question "inappropriate."
Earlier this month, the city council approved Bush's sudden resignation after a surprise motion from Armacost. The resignation of the popular city manager alarmed Sequin residents who believe the public clash over QAnon led to Bush's departure.
Bush told CNN he would not comment on his departure.
On Thursday's "Coffee with the Mayor" broadcast, residents like Karen Hogan called in to demand an explanation.
"We have philosophical differences between the city council and the city manager," Armacost said.
"What are those differences?" Hogan fired back on the call.
"I'm not at the liberty of revealing those," Armacost said. "We have great differences, and we will leave it at that."
Two callers into the mayor's broadcast then asked, "Why do you publicly support QAnon?"
"I have never publicly stated I support it," Armacost said. "I'm an information seeker and I should have kept my personal feelings to myself."
Residents who formed the Sequim Good Governance League dispute the mayor's defense.
Armacost's opponents point to the mayor's personal Facebook page, where Armacost has shared multiple posts of disinformation and the phrase "WWG1WGA," a rallying cry that QAnon supporters have adopted, meaning, "Where we go one, we go all."
They also say the mayor has been wearing a lapel pin at the virtual city council meetings this year. The pin, plainly visible on the recorded city council meetings, is a skull matching the Punisher symbol favored by QAnon believers. The mayor says the pin is in support of law enforcement.
Younger says 500 people have joined the Sequim Good Governance League in just two weeks. They fear that the departure of the city manager signals the mayor may further influence the town.
"People are awake now," Younger said. "They want to participate, and they want to be involved."
Rick Perdue, who recently moved to Sequim from the East Coast, said he was shocked to hear about the mayor of his new town, which he described as moderate and welcoming.
"I didn't think we'd have this kind of a nutcase here. He should represent the values of the community, not his crazy right wing QAnon conspiracy stuff," Perdue said.
Perdue points out that Sequim is in Clallam County, a bellwether county that has picked the winning President in every election since 1980. The county, says Perdue, represents the political sentiment of the country, which is why he is alarmed by the mayor's words.
"There's a lot of people that believe this," Perdue said. "Look at the stuff that's going on in Congress now. We're certainly not unique in having high level people that follow the QAnon conspiracy theory information."
'I EVEN READ THE FAKE NEWS'
On Thursday, CNN approached Armacost outside the radio station following his program. For 15 minutes, the mayor calmly and politely answered questions.
When quoted back what he previously said on his radio program, calling the conspiracy theory a "truth movement," Armacost said, "What I call is the opportunity as a patriot and as an American citizen to seek truth. That comes through analysis and research. People need to make up their own mind to make up their own homework."
The mayor said he regretted telling residents to view the QAnon video, but he didn't acknowledge the video's outlandish content. Without prompting, the mayor then diverted the conversation to human trafficking. One of the promoted QAnon conspiracy theories is that the members of "deep state" engage in trafficking.
"I think if you take the time to do the research, there are many parallels that you may read that have been historically in the books of things that have happened," Armacost said. "The human trafficking is one of them. We've had a great opportunity to seek more people that are in peril and rescue them and try to recover a normal life."
When asked whether he's a QAnon follower, the mayor said, "I entertain all resources. I even read the fake news, to even see if there's a fabric, a thread of fabric that contains truth."
Armacost says he could never support defacing a building like the U.S. Capitol or attempting to harm or disrupt a public official. But he questioned whether QAnon beliefs fueled some of the Capitol insurrectionists, despite video showing Jan 6 rioters wearing Q shirts and carrying Q signs as they breached the Capitol.
"I've watched a lot of videos of what appears to be scenarios versus what has continued to run. I have no way to confirm that that was one group versus another," Armacost said. "Just because the angle of the camera showed this view, it may not have shown another angle that shows a totally different scenario. I'm not denouncing it, but I'm not committing that this frame that I saw on a clip is the truth versus they didn't show all the information."
Ultimately, the mayor says what he believes privately carries no impact on his non-partisan job as mayor of Sequim.
On whether he would denounce QAnon as concerned Sequim residents have asked him to do, the mayor said, "I'm not supporting it. I'm not in a position...I'm one small man that runs a small business in a small little town. I don't have the authority to denounce or promote either."