Mayor’s firing ‘investment’ nears $500,000
By JUSTIN BURNETT
Whidbey News Times Staff reporter
February 12, 2012 · Updated 6:07 AM
The price of implementing newly elected Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley’s staff changes is now bumping up against the half-million dollar mark.
According to Doug Merriman, the city’s finance director, the direct and indirect costs attached to the firings of three senior level city officials and the retirement of a fourth this past January will cost taxpayers at least $480,475.
That sum includes severance packages for contracted employees who were fired without cause, the expense of hiring, training, and recruiting permanent replacements, and the cost of interim appointments.
Dudley acknowledged that his firing spree comes with a hefty price tag.
“It is a lot of money, absolutely,” Dudley said. “But once again, it’s the cost of doing business.”
The mayor said he is looking at the expense as “an investment” into the future, and that he believes those costs will be justified over the course of his four-year term with positive change for Oak Harbor.
During his first two weeks on the job, Dudley fired Paul Schmidt, city administrator; Margery Hite, city attorney; and Mark Soptich, the city’s longtime fire chief. Rick Wallace, police chief, is also retiring under mutual agreement with the mayor.
Dudley says he doesn’t anticipate additional staff changes anytime soon, but it may not be for a lack of trying.
Christon Skinner, an attorney representing City Engineer Eric Johnston, recently sent a letter to the city’s legal department that said he believed the mayor was attempting to manufacture cause to terminate his client’s employment. The letter warned the mayor to back off or face potential litigation.
Johnston, who declined to comment, is what’s called a “for cause” employee. That means, unlike those already let go, he can only be fired for legitimate reasons. If not, the city could be liable for wrongful termination and face financial damages.
Dudley acknowledged there have been times in the past when he’s publicly criticized the city engineer’s job performance but he denied allegations that he is deliberately or actively looking for ways to fire Johnston.
“There is no validity to that letter,” he said.
Other city employees are seeking job security as well. On Feb. 1, the Public Employment Relations Committee formally certified the organization of 33 Public Works employees with General Teamsters Union Local No. 231.
According to Rich Ewing, the teamster’s business representative, their efforts began in mid-November before the general election concluded. However, since then, the process has moved quickly and seen little resistance among workers.
“There was overwhelming support to organize,” said Ewing, adding that 70 percent of employees signed bargaining cards, which precluded the need for an election.
Ewing also confirmed that city marina employees --- there are three not counting the harbormaster --- have also expressed interest in joining the teamsters.
As for the total cost of Dudley’s staff changes to date, they were presented to the city council during its regular Tuesday meeting. Merriman’s report was provided at the request of Councilman Bob Severns after last month’s firings.
Although Dudley calls his decisions an investment, others call it excessive. Severns said he drafted the motion because he knew the costs would be exorbitant and said Merriman’s report showed that to be accurate.
“$480,475 is excessive,” he said.
However, the agenda item sparked hot criticism from Dudley supporters. Paul Brewer, a former councilman, argued it’s common for new mayors to make changes to their administration and that he’d seen it several times during his 12 years on the council.
Likewise, Shane Hoffmire said the mayor shouldn’t be held responsible for “lofty” severance packages because they were approved by the city council. At one point, he became so impassioned that he left the room saying loudly, “You people are hopeless.”
Severns said he doubted any past mayors have incurred such expense during their first two weeks in office. He also said it’s the job of council members to fully understand all impacts to the city’s budget.
According to Merriman, the bulk of the costs, $274,941, will come out of the general fund reserve. While that will drain the current $3.76 million balance by about 2 percent, he noted that even after the unexpected expense, the reserve balance will hover at 28 percent of the general fund.
“We are still quite a bit higher than our minimum (16.6 percent) balance,” Merriman said.
Councilman Rick Almberg, who late last year made headlines with a proposal to hobble the mayor’s power with a temporary hiring and firing freeze, criticized the the terminations as rash.
Schmidt could have been given the chance to “negotiate his way out,” which Almberg said he believes would have been easier on staff and cheaper on taxpayers. Also, he said he couldn’t understand why Hite was fired only to be rehired at 160 percent of her salary for doing 60 percent of the work.
“That doesn’t make any darn sense to me and if the logic can be explained I would like to hear it,” Almberg said.
City Attorney Bill Hawkins didn’t address the question at the time, but said later that Hite was retained on a limited capacity to continue working on ongoing and complex legal cases, like the city’s battle with the county over the expansion of its urban growth area.
Almberg said he also wanted to hear what Dudley’s plan was to make up for the financial shortfall because these expenses, and how they will be dealt with, will affect how he’ll vote during the next budget cycle.
“These decisions will definitely define your administration Mr. Mayor,” he said.
When asked to answer Almberg’s question in a later interview, Dudley said he does have a financial plan but will not release it until he meets with the council during its planned retreat next month.
Contact Whidbey News Times Staff reporter Justin Burnett at email@example.com or 360-675-6611 ext. 5054.