Dudley firings cost thousands for Oak Harbor, ‘stay tuned’ for more changes
By JUSTIN BURNETT
Whidbey News Times Staff reporter
January 14, 2012 · Updated 5:39 AM
The firing of Oak Harbor City Administrator Paul Schmidt and City Attorney Margery Hite will cost taxpayers at least $147,765.
Both were unceremoniously let go late last week by newly elected Mayor Scott Dudley. While the decision isn’t expected to cause any legal problems as they were “at will” employees — people who can be let go for no reason — it will be expensive.
The two senior-level Oak Harbor leaders are contracted employees, and the termination of their jobs without cause means they are entitled to the previously negotiated severance packages outlined in their contracts.
Schmidt will be paid his salary, totaling $92,421, for the next eight months, while Hite’s will total $55,344 for the next six months. Both will also receive further benefits, such as medical, but those costs are still being tabulated.
According to Finance Director Doug Merriman, the financial hit was not expected but city coffers do have the funds to cover the expense. The money will come from the city’s reserve fund, he said.
“It is a significant cost but it doesn’t impair the city’s financial position,” Merriman said.
The reserve fund has a current balance of about $3.7 million. The severance packages should reduce that by about 1.2 percent, he said.
‘Some long faces’
Reaction at City Hall to the news has been a mix of surprise, dreaded expectancy and, no doubt, some hard feelings. The two senior employees worked for Oak Harbor for years and were well liked by their colleagues.
“Paul and Margery were very popular,” said Bill Hawkins, who has taken over for Hite as city attorney. “There were definitely some long faces last week.”
Dudley fired both employees during his very first week on the job. He started hinting about staff changes nearly a year ago when he first launched his campaign to defeat incumbent Jim Slowik.
His decision also came just weeks after City Councilman Rick Amberg’s controversial December proposal to place a hiring and firing freeze of all staff before Dudley could take office. Almberg, who is currently out of the country, cited financial concerns related to severance packages.
While Dudley’s plans have been widely talked about, it still caught even the most veteran city politicians off guard.
“Not surprised but it was shocking,” said City Councilman Danny Paggao, describing his reaction to the news.
Having been in office since 1994, he’s seen many changes made by mayors going back as far as Al Koetje. But this was the most unexpected of them all, said Paggao, particularly concerning Schmidt.
The longtime councilman called him “quite intelligent,” saying Schmidt’s background in public works and experience as a city administrator has armed him a great deal of “corporate knowledge on municipal issues.”
Paggao made it clear that he has no problem with the decision as state law affords mayors the prerogative to select their own administration. He may not fully understand it, but Paggao said he respects Dudley’s decision.
The mayor has declined to say why he let either employee go, saying only that he believes his decision was made in the best interest of the community. He appointed Hawkins, a former two-term Island County prosecutor, as city attorney and Planning Director Steve Powers as interim city administrator.
Per city code, a permanent replacement for Schmidt will have to be approved by the city council. Powers has declined to say whether he is interested in the job permanently, that his interest right now is to help the mayor and city council.
“My focus is on the here and now,” Powers said.
As for the city attorney’s position, that’s a decision that Dudley can and has made on his own. It’s a latitude allowed to mayors largely due to the sensitive nature of the attorney-client relationship, Hawkins said.
Dudley has said repeatedly in the past that he would not make any decisions about staff changes until after he conducted department head reviews. But when asked when those occurred, he would only say that he spoke with Hite on Friday and Schmidt on Thursday of last week.
He acknowledged that he spoke with Hawkins and Powers shortly after the November election, telling both employees that they didn’t need to worry about their jobs. He met with them again last month to discuss how a change might be handled, he said.
He denied having “recruited” either person, saying he met with them so as to be better prepared to address a vacancy quickly if one occurred. He claimed he had not “officially” made any decisions until last week.
More changes ahead
In light of the recent controversy over Almberg’s motion, Dudley’s quick action last week was a clear message to the city council that his plans will not be thwarted.
“When we have the opportunity to make a change for the benefit of Oak Harbor, we’re going to do so,” Dudley said.
He made that equally evident last week when he ordered the filming of a standing committee meeting. He had broached the subject the night before at a city council meeting but the proposal was not formally adopted.
On Friday, Dudley announced another shocker, that he’d fired Fire Chief Mark Soptich and that Police Chief Rick Wallace was retiring. More is likely to come, he said.
“I wish I could tell you we’re done but I’m going to continue to take strong hard looks at all department heads,” Dudley said.
Contact Whidbey News Times Staff reporter Justin Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-675-6611 ext. 5054.