Hiring, firing freeze aimed at Oak Harbor's new mayor
By JUSTIN BURNETT
Whidbey News Times Staff reporter
December 3, 2011 · Updated 5:48 AM
Oak Harbor Mayor-elect Scott Dudley is still nearly a month away from taking office yet some of his biggest critics on the city council may be trying to subvert, or at least delay, some of his plans.
In a surprise move that caused more than a few jaws to drop at a special meeting Monday, City Councilman Rick Almberg made a last-minute motion to discuss a six-month freeze on the hiring and firing of city employees for budgetary and operational reasons at the first meeting in December --- a meeting Dudley will not be in town to attend.
The motion was immediately seconded by City Councilwoman Beth Munns and carried without discussion. Requests to have something placed on an agenda do not require a vote, only a second.
Dudley, who is a sitting city councilman, said in a later interview that he has serious questions about the legality of any action that might limit his ability to fire personnel. However, he said the last thing he wants to do is foster an adversarial relationship in which “the city council wants to handcuff the mayor.”
While he is prepared to abide by any decision, Dudley is not planning to abandon his plans to take a hard look at each department and determine what, if any, changes need to be made.
“In the worst case scenario, that would give me six months to make a good decision,” Dudley said.
While leaving Monday’s meeting, Dudley said Almberg’s motion came as a complete surprise, but he believed it was no coincidence that the issue was proposed for discussion on Dec. 6, a night he would be away on family business.
“They knew I would be away on an excused absence,” Dudley said.
But, while he won’t be at the meeting to defend himself or any actions he has yet to make, a host of supporters plan to be there in his stead. Many were more than put off by the unexpected motion, seeing it as the action of a sore loser who supported Mayor Jim Slowik in the election.
“I thought his (Almberg’s) motion was an attempt to protect his friends and bully the incoming mayor,” said Sandi Peterson, who served as Dudley’s campaign manager.
Throughout his long road to the mayor’s seat, Dudley has hinted that he would make staffing changes if elected. However, he has consistently declined to identify any specific positions, saying that he would need to perform reviews before making any decisions.
Almberg, one of Dudley’s chief critics on the city council, said in a later interview that he wanted to discuss the issue largely because of budget concerns. Oak Harbor is struggling financially, he said, and the cost of firing personnel who may be awarded severance packages could be as detrimental as hiring new staff.
Also, there are some internal policies concerning employment that he said contain “technical ambiguities.” If the new mayor was to fire certain city staff for political reasons, Almberg worries that it could come back to haunt the city with litigation and that’s a gamble he doesn’t want to take.
“I don’t want to tie the mayor’s hands but I don’t want his decisions to adversely affect the city’s financial condition,” Almberg said.
He denies purposely scheduling the issue for a meeting Dudley won’t be able to attend. Almberg said he chose Dec. 6 for the simple reason that he will be absent the rest of the month and this is the only time he can address it before Dudley takes office and possible action.
Almberg acknowledged that he notified outgoing Mayor Slowik before the meeting that he would be making the motion. He also said he approached Munns and told her he would like a second “if she supported it.”
While it’s clear Munns is willing to at least talk about a temporary employment freeze, other city council members are adamantly opposed. Jim Campbell, the only city councilman to publicly throw his support behind Dudley in the mayor’s race, called the move petty.
“My candidate didn’t get my way so I’m going to do what I can to slow things down; that was my first reaction,” Campbell said.
Campbell learned later about some of the possible problems with the city’s employment policies. He admits they could make it both difficult and expensive to fire staff, including department heads. However, Campbell said they don’t change anything because the rules appear to conflict with state law.
“The mayor has a right to do this whether there is a city policy or not,” Campbell said. “If anything else, we can get (the rules) cleared up.”
Looking for some answers, Campbell contacted the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, an organization that serves as a resource for elected officials and employees of cities and towns dealing with complex issues.
Although research center officials no longer provide comment to the media, Campbell said they made it clear to him that Almberg’s motion oversteps the city council’s power and may even violate state law.
“It is beyond the council’s authority to prevent the mayor from firing employees, even for a limited period of time, because the authority to fire city employees is given by statute to the mayor,” wrote research center legal consultant Bob Meinig in an email to Campbell.
While a city council may legally impose a hiring freeze, or even eliminate certain positions, Meinig wrote that firing is a different story. Not only does state law grant that privilege solely to the mayor, but hindering that right would make it difficult to remove an employee who may deserve termination for reasons that don’t involve politics.
Almberg said he is aware of that problem and that any hiring/firing freeze adopted needs to afford the mayor the flexibility to terminate staff who may violate written city policy. He said he has nothing but good intentions and can’t help it if Dudley supporters think he is trying to hinder the will of the new administration.
“They can have whatever feeling they want but that’s not my intent,” Almberg said.
“I don’t give a rip about this politics stuff,” he said.
Change comes with new mayors, and Almberg said he’s not fighting that. But before giving Dudley a green light, he wants time to understand and identify the potential financial impacts those changes may have. That includes the chance to address the city’s potentially problematic employment policies.
Dudley said he would “take Mr. Almberg at his word” when it came to his professed good intentions, but still plans to conduct department head reviews very soon after taking office. In fact, Dudley plans to tackle just about all the promises he made while on the campaign trail within his first 90 days, starting with cutting the mayor’s salary by 20 percent.
State law does not allow him, or the city council, to cut his salary after he’s elected but Dudley has promised to voluntarily redistribute that part of his paycheck back into city coffers. Even though it will still be counted as income, and Dudley will have to pay taxes on it, the mayor-elect said he will not renege on his commitment.
“That won’t sway me,” he said.
Dudley also plans to establish a task force for economic development, begin filming standing committee meetings for the internet and most likely channel 10, and bring forward a proposal to change the committee locations and times so they are more accessible to the public.
Finally, Dudley said filling his vacant seat on the city council will be a top priority. Resumes will be requested in January and a committee of city council members will whittle the applicants down to a handful and a finalist should be selected by February.
So far, Cecil Pierce, Downtown Merchants Association president Ron Apgar, and Larry Eaton and Paul Brewer, both of whom waged unsuccessful bids for city council seats this past November, have committed to submitting resumes.
Contact Whidbey News Times Staff reporter Justin Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-675-6611 ext. 5054.