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Council members reveal a flurry of conflicts

Oak Harbor City Council members seem to have taken to heart recent concerns about openness and conflicts of interest.

At its regular Tuesday meeting, Sept. 7, five of the seven members either recused themselves from issues or identified possible conflicts to the rest of the council. It happened so frequently during the meeting that it brought about chuckles from the crowd and elected officials alike.

Mel Vance, a regular at council meetings and a former council candidate, said in an interview Thursday that the new-found openness on the council, and the subsequent disclosures, raises the concern that votes have been made in the past by members he believes should have recused themselves. While he was glad to see the change, the seeming light-heartedness that accompanied the self-disclosures during Tuesday’s meeting made him wonder whether council members were really taking the issue seriously.

“In some respects, I think it’s a deliberate overreaction to make the issue look funny or ridiculous,” Vance said.

Oak Harbor Councilman Jim Palmer was the first to recuse himself. He stepped away twice during two separate discussions about water and sewer rates due to the fact that he owns rental properties in town.

Oak Harbor City Councilman Rick Almberg disclosed that he had a possible conflict during a conversation about the release of a no-longer-needed city easement for a lift-station near the West Meadow’s development. He said he had a relationship with the developer.

City Attorney Margery Hite quizzed Almberg about the relationship, determined that no financial ties existed, then asked “to let the record show” that no council members or anyone from the crowd suggested that Almberg recuse himself.

Almberg did recuse himself, along with City Councilman Scott Dudley, from a vote on an award for a project to build a parking lot and gathering area on Scenic Heights Street to serve as the trailhead for the waterfront trail system. Both said they have business dealings with the lowest bidder, Oak Harbor-based C. Johnson Construction Inc.

Dudley is at the center of the recusal issue, as he publicly implicated City Councilman Bob Severns of possible wrongdoing for voting on issues regarding the SE Pioneer Way improvement project. Severns is part owner of a property on Bayshore Street, which Dudley suggested creates a conflict.

Severns, along with City Councilwoman Beth Munns, expressed possible conflicts over a bid award for a dredging project at Oak Harbor Marina. Munns said she has a boat moored at the marina, and Severns conceded he has both a storage shed and owns a property that overlooks the facility, which he said could increase in value because of the dredging project.

When his comments brought about laughter from the audience, he responded that he was “serious” and meant what he said.

Vance wasn’t the only one who wondered about the recusals and possible conflicts of interest voiced during Tuesday’s meeting. City Councilman Jim Campbell said he thought most were genuine, but may have been an overreaction to debates this year concerning both public meetings rules and conflicts of interest.

Others, he said, were more suspect.

“There were times during that meeting that I felt ... some of these are a little silly,” Campbell said.

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