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Oak Harbor bars the public from audit findings

Oak Harbor City officials barred the public from attending two meetings Friday morning between state regulators and the City Council concerning the results of the city’s annual financial audit.

The results and any official findings must eventually be made public, but Oak Harbor Mayor Jim Slowik said the exit interview with representatives of the Washington State Auditor’s Office was private. It’s meant to give city staff and elected officials a chance to respond to the information released, he said.

The exit interview was purposely broken up into two meetings, held at 8:30 and 9 a.m., so the city could dodge the state’s quorum laws that regulate public meetings.

Municipalities are audited annually by the state office, but according to spokeswoman Kara Klotz, there is no rule or policy that requires the meetings be open to the public, even though state law requires the eventual release of all results and findings. While it’s not uncommon for cities to have the exit interview during an open council meeting, it’s not a decision that’s up to state regulators, she said.

“It depends on the city,” Klotz said. “It’s their preference.”

The meetings were not advertised and a Whidbey News-Times reporter learned of them only after being alerted by City Councilman Scott Dudley. Dudley, who has confirmed he is considering a run for mayor, said the meetings should have been public and was quick to blast Slowik and the city’s current administration for a lack of transparency.

“You’re going to find that I’m going to continue to air on the side of being open even if the city doesn’t like what the state auditor is doing,” Dudley said.

However, Dudley declined to discuss what was said during the meeting. He claimed that moments after the Whidbey News-Times reporter was asked to leave, he was instructed by the mayor not to talk about the results so city officials have a chance to respond or argue any findings presented before a final audit report is released, Dudley said.

The results of the 2010 audit have been particularly anticipated. In August, Sadie Armijo, an audit manager for the auditor’s Bellingham office, confirmed that they would be looking closely at the city’s plan to use money form the real estate excise tax fund, otherwise known as REET money, to cover the cost of putting utility lines underground as part of the controversial SE Pioneer Way improvement project.

Dudley, who was on the losing side of a 4-2 council vote to spend the money, tipped off Armijo of the city’s plan. However, she also confirmed in the same August interview that she was already aware of the city’s intentions and would be investigating the issue during the annual audit.

According to Dudley, the final audit report will be released sometime in mid-December.

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