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Oak Harbor City Council, mayor battle over unfilled jobs

The city of Oak Harbor currently has a whopping 24 unfilled positions, which has raised the ire of City Council members who are upset about Mayor Scott Dudley’s leadership.

The concerns led to an odd skirmish during a meeting Wednesday at which council members discussed a possible hiring freeze because of the perceived fiscal emergency and then passed a motion aimed at forcing the mayor to fill administrative positions expediently.

Dudley argued that the council’s actions were nonsensical and purely political, especially since interim leaders are currently filling the administrative positions and thereby saving the city a great deal of money.

“If they are truly concerned about the city’s finances, why identify the city administrator and police chief as priorities to be filled when you already have excellent people in those positions?” Dudley said in an interview after the meeting.

Moreover, the council’s actions may be in conflict with state law, which gives mayors hiring and firing authority. Dudley said he checked with Municipal Research and Services Center and was told that the council did, in fact, overstep its bounds.

Yet several council members blamed the city’s predicament squarely on Dudley, who fired several key figures and is accused of creating a hostile environment that forced others to flee.

City Engineer Eric Johnston gave his notice this week, joining a long list of departing city officials. City Clerk Connie Wheeler has handed in her letter of resignation, as has Karen Crouch, the city administrator’s executive assistant. Police Lt. John Dyer has taken a job in Colorado. The human resources director took a job in Skagit County and her assistant left.

Since taking office in January, Dudley fired the city administrator and the police chief. He fired the city attorney and then fired the replacement city attorney.

Other open positions include two administrative assistants, a firefighter, two assistant city attorneys, a harbormaster, a jailer, two police officers, an evidence tech, a trash collector, a water specialist and a treatment plant operator.

“This is the highest number of openings in the city’s history,” interim Human Resources Director Cheryl Lawler said.

Councilman Rick Almberg suggested a hiring freeze during the Wednesday night regular meeting in response to a fiscal emergency that the council declared earlier this year; the declaration was largely in response to the costs associated with the terminations and disappointing sales tax numbers.

Almberg and other council members then criticized the mayor for not moving forward with filling administrative positions.

Dudley’s head nearly blew up.

“If we operate like we’re in a fiscal emergency, we don’t go out and hire a city administrator when we have a great city administrator already,” Dudley said, referring to interim city administrator Larry Cort.

The council members have been harshly critical of Dudley for firing people, particularly for the high severance costs. Dudley pointed out that he filled the city administrator and police chief positions on an interim basis with current employees, saving the city a lot of money in the process. If the interims stay in place long enough, it would save the city enough money to make up for the severance costs that the council’s so angry about.

Former Mayor Patty Cohen, for example, ran the city with interim city administrators and an interim police chief several times during her tenure. Cathy Rosen, the public works director, doubled as the interim city administrator for 10 months during one stretch, saving the city tens of thousands of dollars.

Contracting to fill the city attorney’s position, however, has been expensive. Attorney Grant Weed, who specializes in municipal law, billed the city for $17,000 in June and $25,000 in July. Combined, that’s about twice what the city attorney would have earned. Yet Dudley pointed out that last year the city employed an assistant attorney as well as a city attorney, and spent about $97,000 on outside legal work.

Yet the council members insist that the positions be filled quickly. Councilwoman Tara Hizon admitted that “mathematically it does not make sense,” but she said it’s about having permanent leadership and “the intangibles.”

Several council members became upset when Lawler, the Human Resources director, admitted that the mayor had halted the process for hiring a new police chief; Lt. Tim Sterkel is currently filling the role on an interim basis. Dudley explained that he thought the council’s declaration of a fiscal emergency meant he shouldn’t be spending money on hiring a chief when the police department is doing fine under interim leadership.

The council members, however, had made it clear that they wanted permanent people in those positions as quickly as possible.

“There’s double talk going on. Or spin going on,” Almberg said.

“Councilwoman Munns begged for this position to be filled,” Councilman Joel Servatius said. Beth Munns was absent Wednesday, but she had been so concerned about filling the positions quickly that she asked for a regular updates on the progress and pleaded to be kept in the loop.

Hizon indicated she wasn’t happy that the attorney position hadn’t been advertised sooner.

Cort explained that the hiring process was still on track. Jessica Hoyson, former Human Resources director, had created a timeline for advertising and filling the administrative positions before she left. She made it clear that the department only has the capacity to go through the process of filling one administrative position at a time.

The council passed a motion to move ahead with the process of hiring department heads.

Councilman Jim Campbell joined Dudley and the HR director in arguing against Almberg’s proposal to freeze hiring on all the non-administrative positions without any investigation whatsoever. Campbell suggested a workshop with department heads to see which positions need to be filled right away and what can wait.

Lawler argued that a hiring freeze would not be in the best interest of the city and would affect the morale of employees.

“You may continue to see people leave and that will create a hardship for the city,” she warned.

But Almberg didn’t agree.

“That’s not why they are leaving. Let’s be clear about that,” he said.

Later, Almberg lamented the resignation of the City Engineer Eric Johnston, who he considered a very competent engineer with a lot of institutional knowledge. Johnston had been faulted by some — others would say scapegoated — for the trouble with the Pioneer Way project.

“Quite frankly,” Almberg said, “I think it’s a hostile environment that’s been imposed on that individual and probably others.”

 

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