Oak Harbor mayor’s vision elusive, critics say
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
September 24, 2012 · Updated 9:34 AM
Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley’s State of the City address started out rocky Wednesday night, but ended in something close to harmony.
It seems doubtful, however, that the presentation will satisfy a City Council that has been critical and skeptical of the mayor over the last nine months. He said prior to the meeting that his motive for giving the speech was to head off complaints from council members about his supposed lack of vision or direction.
Anyone expecting a bold new vision would be disappointed, Dudley admitted afterward. Instead, he presented some generalized priorities — No. 1 was public safety — as well as specific goals, such as improving the city’s fire insurance rating and battling urban blight.
Indeed, Councilman Joel Servatius said afterward that he heard very little in the way of vision.
“From conversations I’ve had I believe the public, the city staff, and at least this council member are still unclear as to what this ‘new direction’ or vision is,” he wrote in an email.
Servatius also faulted the mayor for his answer to questions about the high number of firings and vacancies, as well as a lack of applicants.
“As for me personally, I was hoping for leadership and direction as to where the city is going. That is vision,” he said. “A leader with vision will share a dream and provide direction that others will want to follow.”
Dudley said afterward that he wanted to make a point in distinguishing himself from the former mayor, who prioritized capital projects during his term.
“When you start pushing projects through and you start having quantity instead of quality, mistakes happen,” he said. “And I think we’ve seen that.”
The meeting began in confusion. Councilman Rick Almberg interrupted the mayor just as he was beginning, pointing out that it was actually a council meeting and council members have the authority to run it as they see fit. He made a motion to allow comments and questions by the council and the public at the end of the address.
Paul Brewer, a former councilman, loudly interjected from the audience. He criticized Almberg by name and told him to show the mayor some respect.
Dudley argued that it was a workshop, in which case the council wouldn’t be in control. He said he wasn’t prepared to answer questions “off the cuff,” but wanted to be able to research questions and offer more complete answers.
Interim City Administrator Larry Cort, however, advised that the meeting had been advertised as a special meeting of the council. Dudley apologized and allowed the council members to proceed. They passed a motion to allow comments and questions by the council and the public at the end of the address.
Afterward, Dudley explained that he had intended the it to be in a workshop, but the interim city clerk inadvertently advertised it as a special meeting.
Dudley began his PowerPoint presentation by describing the city departments and what they do. It was largely nothing new to the council, though he added some interesting tidbits. While discussing the fire department, he said he wanted to move the city from a “code 4” to a “code 3” city, which will make insurance less expensive for homeowners and business.
He said he wants to start a “pavement management system” to describe every road in the city and plan for all future road work.
Dudley reported that the city has 25 staff vacancies, including nine administrative positions. He said the public works and marina employees are in the process of unionizing.
Dudley announced that his top priorities are public safety, economic development, government transparency, customer service / communication and financial soundness.
Dudley said one area of concern for him is “city blight.” He said some banks haven’t been taking care of foreclosed houses, resulting in unkempt lawns and yards. He proposed following the city of Seatac’s lead in creating a policy in which the city hires a landscaping company to do yard work on these houses. The city would then charge the banks through a lien on the houses.
In addition, he proposed an archway downtown, similar to what Anacortes has, and a “walk of honor.”
“I think we’ve accomplished a lot, year to date, but we’re not done yet,” he closed, earning a round of applause from the audience.
The half dozen people who spoke during the public comment period were mainly supportive of the mayor.
Sandy Peterson noted that Dudley had pledged to donate 20 percent of his salary to the city during last year’s campaign and asked him if he kept the promise.
Dudley said he had, giving back $420 per paycheck. He said that will equate to $40,000 over his four-year term.
Jim Reynolds asked Dudley why he fired so many people and why the city is having trouble finding suitable applicants. Since taking office, the mayor has fired the city administrator, the fire chief, the police chief, the city attorney and then the replacement city attorney.
Dudley didn’t respond with specifics, but said he understood people’s concerns.
“Know that I am focused on the big picture and the end result,” he said.
Several people scolded the council for being disrespectful and uncooperative with the mayor. Brewer demanded that they put their “personal agendas aside and grow up.”
The council members had just a handful of questions for the mayor, mainly about the timeframe for hiring administrative positions.
In a revealing moment, a couple of council members discussed the perception of their dysfunctional relationship. Almberg thanked the mayor for the “informative presentation” and defended the council, saying that asking questions and challenging each other doesn’t mean they are being rude. He said it’s a part of good governance.
Councilwoman Tara Hizon said the elected leaders get along very well when they aren’t at the dais. She also defended Almberg’s actions in taking control of the meeting, pointing out that people were able to make comments because of his actions.
“I realize that sometimes he can come off a little abrasive, but that is just Mr. Almberg,” she said.
Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.