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Chief’s firing sparks firestorm of protest
Newly elected Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley, the champion of Pioneer Way dissenters, found himself on the receiving end of public criticism this week.
In a packed room at City Hall Tuesday, more than 20 people took to the microphone to condemn, express outrage, seek understanding or plead for the job of longtime Fire Chief Mark Soptich.
“There’s been a travesty of justice that’s taken place,” an emotional George Holtry said.
The Oak Harbor resident, like many in the crowd, said he voted for Dudley this past November because he wanted to see change in city government. But this was not what Holtry envisioned and he was among a chorus of voices who beseeched the mayor to reconsider his decision.
Soptich was one of the latest in a house cleaning of senior Oak Harbor officials during Dudley’s first two weeks on the job. City Administrator Paul Schmidt and City Attorney Margery Hite were also fired and Police Chief Rick Wallace is retiring under mutual agreement with the mayor.
Most of those who spoke on the fire chief’s behalf were friends, family members, business owners and people from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints where Soptich serves as one of three bishops.
Throughout the one hour and 10 minutes of public comment, many expressed consternation over the fire chief’s unexpected dismissal. Soptich was repeatedly praised for his strength of character and long years of service.
“He deserves more respect than this mayor gave him,” said Mike Lemme, an Oak Harbor dentist.
Dudley wasn’t without defenders, however. Several residents, including staunch supporters Shane Hoffmire and Paul Brewer, argued that Dudley was elected by a hefty margin and that he is moving forward with promised change.
According to the final count, Dudley won with 55.88 percent of the vote to incumbent Jim Slowik’s 42.95 percent. Unresolved write-ins accounted for 1.17 percent.
Brewer argued that there is nothing new about incoming mayors making changes at city hall; that he watched it happen at least twice during his 12-year tenure on the city council.
“That is the prerogative of the mayor and council needs to support the mayor,” Brewer said.
Dudley did not respond to any of the public comments during the meeting but did say in an interview afterward that he agrees with many of Soptich’s supporters. The mayor called him a “great man” and that people “have a right to be frustrated.”
“I wholeheartedly agree, it will be difficult to replace an individual like Mark Soptich,” he said.
“But at this point we’re moving forward with a change,” Dudley said.
The mayor said this was not a decision he is taking lightly but again declined to explain his reasons other than to say he believed his action was in the best interest of Oak Harbor and its citizens.
Soptich, who was also at the meeting but did not speak, said he couldn’t shed any more light on why he was let go than Dudley’s previous statements of wanting to move in a different direction.
He also said he appreciated the support and loyalty displayed to him by the community, not just at the meeting but during the nearly 25 years he worked for the fire department.
“This community has always been supportive,” Soptich said. “I owe them a debt of gratitude for that.”