Oak Harbor mayor takes the heat from council in fire chief dispute

Councilman Rick Almberg questions the city’s human resources director about the process of selecting the fire chief candidate. - Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Councilman Rick Almberg questions the city’s human resources director about the process of selecting the fire chief candidate.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times

An Oak Harbor City Council meeting resembled a courtroom drama Tuesday night as council members attacked the mayor over his pick for the next fire chief, grilled staff members and implied that the selection process was a charade to appoint a pre-determined candidate.

The council ultimately tabled the confirmation hearing until after the mayor gives a presentation about all the costs associated with his decisions to fire three top officials, including longtime Fire Chief Mark Soptich, since taking office in January. Then the meeting ended with a shocker as Ray Merrill, the mayor’s choice to run the fire department, announced that he was withdrawing his application for the job. He was clearly frustrated with the council.

“I cannot in good conscience work for the city after what I saw this evening,” he said.

Yet Merrill may not have lost his shot to run the department. Mayor Scott Dudley asked him the following day to reconsider the decision, which Merrill said he is mulling over. Dudley apologized to the council members for the selection process, but said he was optimistic that they will ultimately realize Merrill is the right man for the job.

“The citizens of Oak Harbor will be best served to have him at the helm of the fire department,” he said. “I’m a big Ray Merrill fan.”

Tuesday, five of the council members detailed a long list of grievances about how Dudley went about choosing his candidate, but they each made it clear that they have a great deal of respect for Merrill and that the concerns weren’t related to him. Merrill worked at the Oak Harbor Fire Department for 21 years before retiring to take a job as training officer at North Whidbey Fire and Rescue. About two dozen firefighters and paramedics showed up at the meeting to support him.

The council members’ key concerns revolved around evidence that Dudley may have promised the job to Merrill before he was even elected as mayor and that the advertising and selection process was abbreviated and opaque. The fire chief is an at-will position appointed by the mayor, but must be confirmed by the council. There are no laws regarding how the mayor makes a selection, though the city code covers personnel issues and states hiring shall be made on the basis of merit. Yet the city’s human resources director outlined a process of advertising and interviews she said was customary.

Councilman Rick Almberg led the charge and seemed to channel his inner Perry Mason as he interrogated Human Resources Director Jessica Neill Hoyson. Under questioning, Neill Hoyson explained that she met with Merrill, at the mayor’s request, on Jan. 25 to discuss how he would deal with the retirement system if he were to return to the fire department.

Neill Hoyson claimed Merrill said he had met with the mayor about the job back in August. Neill Hoyson admitted she was concerned that Merrill seemed to think he had been promised the job. She was so concerned, in fact, that she met with the mayor about the issue.

Neill Hoyson said she made it clear to Merrill that the selection was a competitive process and that he was not guaranteed the job. She said Dudley assured her that he hadn’t promised anyone the job, but had encouraged Merrill to apply.

At the end of the meeting Tuesday, Merrill said he had not, in fact, met with the mayor in August, but that Lt. Tim Sterkel with the Oak Harbor Police --- a Dudley supporter --- had talked to him about the position at the National Night Out event. Dudley was in South Africa at the time. Merrill did meet with Dudley in December to discuss the position; both men say no promises were made.

Almberg said the process was tainted and smacked of influence peddling.

“It looks like the process was possibly a sham,” he said. “. . . Mr. Merrill may be a victim of a tainted process.”

Other council members voiced concerns about the quickness of the selection process. Councilwoman Beth Munns said she was shocked that the position was advertised for only two weeks, which was the minimum time recommended by the human resources director. She was on the three-member board that recommended the top two candidates --- Merrill and retired Mount Vernon fire chief Steve Able --- to the mayor. Able was the top recommendation, but Munns wasn’t told Merrill was selected until a newspaper reporter called her.

Likewise, Councilwoman Tara Hizon complained that she was provided with so little information about Merrill; she noted that the agenda packet has 70 pages about HVAC and vending machines, but only a few sentences about Merrill. In later comments, she said she was concerned that the city would open itself to liability since an argument could be made that Merrill was promised a position long ago.

“It makes me a little sick to my stomach that this didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped it would,” she said, explaining she went into the meeting supporting Merrill.

Councilman Danny Paggao made it clear that he supports hiring Merrill, but he questioned why the interviews weren’t open to the public. Most of the council members didn’t even know the process was taking place. Neill Hoyson claimed it is the custom to interview candidates in closed-door meetings.  The process, however, was open to the public the last time a mayor made an appointment. The panels that interviewed police chief candidates four years ago were open and transparent.

Councilmen Bob Severns and Joel Servatius also raised concerns about the fairness of the process. Servatius, the newest councilmen, laid out the timeline and said there’s “a cloud of suspicion and doubt hanging over the process.”

Obviously irritated, Councilman Jim Campbell was the only one on the council to come to the mayor’s defense. He responded that there’s no cloud of suspicion and that the selection process was done within guidelines.

“This is so political it stinks,” he said in reference to the complaints of other council members. His comment earned applause from the firefighters and others in the audience.

At one point, Almberg said he would support giving the position to Able or advertising again. But then Severns made a motion to table the issue until after the mayor makes a presentation about all the costs associated with personnel changes. The motion passed, with only Campbell voting in opposition.

After the meeting, Dudley said he will talk to Severns to clarify what information he wants to see. The mayor said he hopes to make the presentation, and have Merrill confirmed, at the next meeting on March 20.

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