Oak Harbor mayor fires police chief, lawsuit promised
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
June 15, 2012 · Updated 3:27 PM
By JESSIE STENSLAND
The city of Oak Harbor will likely be facing a lawsuit after the mayor fired Police Chief Rick Wallace Thursday.
The surprise move by Mayor Scott Dudley comes just ahead of Monday’s City Council meeting, at which the council members were set to adopt a measure aimed at preventing the mayor from sacking Wallace as well as the public works director.
Wallace is the latest casualty in Dudley’s housecleaning of city administration. Dudley campaigned last year as a city reformer and has unquestionably left his imprint after just six months in office by firing five administrative officials.
Wallace’s attorney, Christon Skinner of Oak Harbor, said Friday that Dudley’s latest decision will cost the taxpayers. He said he would be dropping off a wrongful termination tort Monday. That’s the first step that must be taken before filing a lawsuit against a governmental entity.
“This mayor doesn’t seem to care about the consequences of his decisions,” he said.
Skinner said he believes that Dudley’s decision was retaliation over a sign-stealing incident that occurred last year. Former Mayor Jim Slowik misappropriated a negatively altered “Slowik” campaign sign from a downtown business, but Wallace declined to investigate the incident.
“Mayor Dudley elected to fulfill a campaign promise than to do what’s best for the city,” Skinner said.
“He’s following the advice of his kitchen cabinet rather than his lawyers,” he added.
In an interview Friday, Dudley denied that the sign-stealing incident was at the heart of his decision.
“What I’m focused on is what can we do to make the citizens of Oak Harbor safer,” he said.
In a memo to employees and council members, Dudley thanked Wallace for his 35 years of service to the city and announced the appointment of an interim police chief.
“In consideration of Lt. John Dyer’s widely known application for Oak Harbor Police Chief, I have appointed Lt. Tim Sterkel to serve as acting Police Chief,” Dudley wrote.
Sterkel, who supported Dudley in last year’s campaign, was presumed by many to be Dudley’s choice as the next police chief. But council members threw up a roadblock by adding the condition to the police chief’s job description that he or she must have a bachelor’s degree, which Sterkel does not.
Dyer, the other lieutenant in the department, has applied for the chief position, as have 14 other candidates.
Wallace’s termination will undoubtedly cause consternation among city council members and may result in some fireworks at the upcoming council meeting; the meeting is to be held at 6 p.m. Monday.
Since taking office in January, Dudley fired the city administrator, two city attorneys, the fire chief and now the police chief. He named an interim city administrator and then replaced him. The human resources director found another job and is leaving soon.
“I’m most concerned about city employee morale,” Councilwoman Tara Hizon said after hearing of Wallace’s firing. “People over at the police department were crying. People are upset. It’s very discouraging.”
In addition, Hizon said she’s concerned about the costs, especially with the prospects of a lawsuit. So far, the estimates have exceeded $500,000 in departure pay.
After taking office, Dudley initially gave Wallace the choice of retiring this summer or being terminated immediately. Wallace opted to retire and handed in his retirement letter.
The city started the process of finding a replacement for Wallace after the new fire chief, Ray Merrill, was named. The advertising period is now over, but interviews haven’t begun yet.
In the meantime, Wallace hired Skinner and they concluded that Dudley didn’t have the legal authority to force Wallace out without a reason.
Dudley believes that the police chief is an “at-will” employee who serves at the will of the mayor and can be fired without cause. But Wallace and Skinner concluded that he’s a “for-cause” employee — who can only be fired for a cause — because he doesn’t have a contract and the language in the city code is unclear.
Skinner sent the city a letter on Wallace’s behalf, stating the chief was withdrawing his retirement letter and planned to continue working. Skinner threatened a lawsuit if Wallace was fired or retaliated against.
At their most recent meeting, council members considered a revision to the personnel code which would have clearly designated the police chief as an at-will employee. Bill Hawkins, the former city attorney, previously said adoption of the personnel code would essentially nullify Wallace’s case against the city since employment status rights are vested.
But Skinner addressed the council and suggested that the employment status for both Wallace and Public Works Director Cathy Rosen be “grandfathered in,” so they remain for-cause employees. Skinner represents Wallace and Rosen.
In response, Councilman Rick Almberg read a lengthy motion that designates both Wallace and Rosen in the personnel code as for-cause employees and emphasized that they cannot be terminated without cause. He said the motion would prevent litigation and protect valued employees.
The council tabled the personnel code issue, however, until Monday’s meeting. Dudley’s decision to fire Wallace this week clearly circumvents the council’s intentions.
“I wouldn’t think the mayor would be so disrespectful of the City Council and Chief Wallace,” Skinner said.
According to Skinner, Wallace had to bum a ride home after being fired because he drove to work in his police car.
Skinner said he knows that lawyers with the city’s insurance provider warned Dudley about his actions regarding terminations.
“Quite clearly he’s been warned by his insurance folks that he’s on a slippery slope,” he said.
But Dudley defends his actions and said he believes the council was politically motivated. He said it doesn’t make sense for the council to “grandfather in” Wallace as a for-cause employee, but make future police chiefs “at-will” employees.
Dudley said he’s not certain whether he’s done with administration changes.
“Never say never,” he said. “I will continue to make sure that people in positions of responsibility are held accountable.”
Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.