Oak Harbor mayor picks Merrill as fire chief, council OK needed

Tay Merrill - --
Tay Merrill
— image credit: --

Following a national search for candidates, Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley said he is recommending the appointment of longtime community firefighter Ray Merrill as the city’s new fire chief.

The mayor is expected to put his choice before the city council for ratification at its meeting Tuesday, March 6. The meeting will be held at City Hall on Barrington Drive and begins at 6 p.m.

If selected, Merrill would replace 24-year veteran Fire Chief Mark Soptich, who was one of those fired in a housecleaning of senior-level city officials by Dudley shortly after he took office in January.

The council will also be asked to approve Merrill’s employment contract. Including benefits, the new fire chief would earn $135,731 a year.

Merrill, the current training officer for North Whidbey Fire and Rescue, was selected from a pool of eight candidates. He was the second choice of a special selection committee and the first choice of the mayor.

“Ray is focused and he truly has heart and passion for the Oak Harbor Fire Department,” Dudley said.

“He was hands-down what I think was our best candidate,” he said.

Merrill, 60, has more than 36 years of firefighting experience. Before he went to work for North Whidbey in March of 2011, he spent 22 years in Oak Harbor as battalion chief --- the equivalent of assistant chief --- and 16 years of that was as fire marshal.

Prior to that, he spent 13 years with the fire department in Federal Way and more than a year with the Westport Fire Department.

Under Oak Harbor city code, the fire chief’s job is an appointed position. He serves at the will of the mayor and is appointed by the mayor. However,  the selection of a new chief is subject to the city council’s approval.

Dudley, a former council member, has had a rocky relationship with some council members that has only soured since his election this past November. The problems largely revolve around the mayor’s staff changes, which are expected to cost taxpayers more than $480,000 in severance-related costs.

Dudley’s strained relationship with the council has given birth to much speculation that his choice for fire chief will meet with resistance. Some council members even say they are expecting it.

“I think everything this mayor is going to try to do in the near future will meet with push back,” Councilman Jim Campbell said.

Campbell, who supported Dudley during his campaign, called Merrill a “good choice” and a “good man.” He said he believes he has a solid reputation in the fire department and will get his support.

Councilman Bob Severns, one of those who recently voiced concerns about the high cost of Dudley’s staff changes, said he doesn’t know if there will be push back or not. He said he has a few questions about the process and hasn’t made any decisions yet.

Councilwoman Tara Hizon, who was elected in November, said she also hasn’t made any decisions. She plans to attend the meeting with an open mind and hopes everyone else does the same.

“It would be unfortunate if politics came before the best interests of the people of Oak Harbor,” Hizon said.

She also applauded the process used to find a new fire chief. While city code allows Dudley to have simply put forth a recommendation for ratification, he instead elected to conduct a national search for candidates that began in January.

According to Human Resources Director Jessica Neill Hoyson, of the eight applicants that responded to the city’s search, four were selected administratively to be reviewed by a panel composed of Councilwoman Beth Munns, Oak Harbor Battalion Chief Mike Buxton and Anacortes Fire Chief Richard Curtis.

The initial screening was made based on minimum job requirements and the city’s own criteria for fire chief.

The panel interviewed four candidates and selected two finalists to move forward. Steve Able, a retired fire chief from Mount Vernon, was the group’s first pick with Merrill coming in a close second.

“He was one of the two but not the top choice,” Munns said in an interview this week.

Munns added that it was a tough choice and that she believes both candidates have the qualifications to do a good job. She declined to comment about possible friction over Dudley picking the group’s second choice.

Dudley, who interviewed both finalists, said he chose Merrill largely for his dedication to the department, his drive to be chief, and his past experience in Oak Harbor. Merrill knows the department, the job and the area, which should enable him to take over without missing a beat, he said.

“He’s going to be able to step in and do a phenomenal job,” Dudley said.

“I think the city council would sleep comfortably knowing our fire department is led by Ray Merrill,” he said.


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