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Police chief, fire chief fall as mayor adds to Oak Harbor’s purge

The close of newly elected Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley’s second week on the job has resulted in two more major changes in city leadership.

Indeed, with Dudley at the helm, senior-level employees at City Hall are dropping like flies.

On Friday morning, the mayor announced that he had fired longtime Fire Chief Mark Soptich and that his last day on the job will be March 6. Also, Dudley said he met with Police Chief Rick Wallace and it was mutually agreed it would be best if Wallace retired in June.

Dudley let go City Administrator Paul Schmidt and City Attorney Margery Hite late last week, following through with hints of staff changes he made while on the campaign trail. He declined to say why either was fired and said it would be inappropriate to comment on such personnel matters.

The same is true for Soptich, who has led the fire department for more than 15 years. The mayor would not say why he fired the widely respected chief, only that he believed it was in the best interest of the city.

“That is a decision made by me and I will stand by it,” Dudley said.

Soptich could not be reached for comment Friday.

Wallace, who has served as chief since his appointment in 2008 by former Mayor Jim Slowik, said he had long planned to retire in June as it will mark his 35th year with the department. He began “flip-flopping” on the date last year.

In their meeting Thursday, Wallace said the mayor expressed reluctance about the change of plans. It wasn’t a situation that screamed “retire or get out,” said Wallace, but it was mutually agreed that it would be best if he stuck to his earlier plans.

The chief said he did not begrudge Dudley, that new mayors have the right to make changes in city leadership.

“It’s business; I don’t take it personal,” Wallace said. “I hope no one else does.”

Although Dudley made it clear last week that he wasn’t bluffing when it came to staff changes, his latest decisions are causing a fresh round of shock at City Hall. Even some of his supporters are scratching their heads at the development.

“‘Wow’ is my response,” said City Councilman Jim Campbell.

The mayor must have his reasons, said Campbell, but he admitted he couldn’t begin to speculate what those might be. In fact, he said the move came as a total surprise and that he’d be curious to know the reasons.

However, like Wallace, Campbell said Dudley doesn’t need a good reason. The departing are “at-will” employees and, as mayor, state law allows him to make those changes.

“We’re always going to go back to the same thing,” Campbell said. “It’s his prerogative.”

But that doesn’t mean there are no consequences. They may be at-will workers but they also work under contracts and most department heads have severance packages. In Schmidt and Hite’s case, Dudley’s “prerogative” will cost taxpayers at least $147,765 (see story on page A5 of today’s Whidbey News-Times).

Wallace is retiring so his situation is different, but Dudley did confirm that Soptich has a severance package though he could not say what it was Friday morning.

The new mayor argued that he didn’t make or approve the existing contracts and that he shouldn’t be held responsible for such expenses. Dudley said severance packages are “the nature of the beast” when it comes to contracted employees.

“It’s a part of doing business,” he said.

While Dudley does have the power to unilaterally fire people, he can only appoint a permanent replacement for the city attorney’s position. A new city administrator, fire and police chief will also have to be approved by the city council.

Dudley hopes to have a recommendation for a new fire chief by March 6.

 

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