City attorney closes his career

Armed with a razor sharp mind and a surname that could singlehandedly wipe out a Scripps National Spelling Bee, in the summer of 1980 a young man made his way west, biding adieu to the low rolling hills of the Sheyenne National Grasslands of North Dakota.

Oak Harbor City Attorney Phil Bleyhl arrived in Eastern Washington at his uncle’s house, moving on shortly after to begin a life steeped in academia.

“I went to the University of Washington Law School and then did prosecution for the city of Seattle,” Bleyhl said. “What I wanted was private practice.”

On the eve of his retirement after working more than 27 years to keep the city of Oak Harbor out of court, the dry-witted attorney reflected on his career recently, a day after attending his final city council meeting.

“I went into private practice in 1971 and then came to Oak Harbor in 1973,” he remembered. “I moved up here with a partner but he left. I stayed.”

Bleyhl fell in love with the natural beauty of Whidbey Island, but he also noted the stability and economic potential in Oak Harbor. After the persuasive Al Koetje, then city mayor, approached the attorney and “asked” him about going to work for the city, his days of private practice were numbered.

“He said it was a part-time job,” Bleyhl said with a smile. “It wasn’t a part-time job. But it was good work.”

In the decades spent in city hall, the lawyer has witnessed firsthand a marked decrease in resources that have made it increasingly difficult for the city to keep up with the barrage of regulations. Unfunded mandates handed down by the state often leave the local government holding the bag.

“There has been a major increase in mandates,” Bleyhl said.

Working as a city attorney has afforded the popular Oak Harbor fixture a job that changes daily. The duties actually eclipse those of a general practice lawyer. Bleyhl’s breadth of knowledge has served him well in a position that might intimidate other legal experts.

“We cover a lot of areas,” he said. “There’s always something new, something interesting to work on. It’s fun taking something and making a case.”

Steve Powers, Development Services director, said Bleyhl’s impressive mind is chockful of information, including a sound grasp of Latin. Without the attorney’s assistance, he said his personal mastery of the “dead language” will markedly deteriorate.

Bleyhl has left his legacy, said Councilwoman Sheilah Crider at his final meeting. She described him as a caffeinated man, who has served with distinction and a professionalism beyond reproach.

“He will be greatly missed,” she said. “That quick wit, easy laugh and his triple shots of espresso.”

Growing up in North Dakota, Bleyhl learned to work. That was his designation; his calling. Vacations were not work and therefore not acknowledged. The city attorney took two months off under duress when his vacation hours ballooned to a point that required him to use it or lose it.

“Vacations have really never been a part of my life,” he said. “I had to take it. By the second month, it became this strange existence but it was blissful.”

Bleyhl will say goodbye to city hall for good on Jan. 31. He and his wife Billie will remain in Oak Harbor, but he plans to take those vacations for another test spin. The couple of 34 years will likely soak up the sun on a cruise in the fall.

“We’ve considered finding warmer climates during the winter, but we don’t know yet,” said Bleyhl, whose son lives near Elger and his daughter is married to a sailor and resides in Oak Harbor.

Both the accomplished lawyer and his wife use gardening as a catharsis, focusing their energies on the mini Garden of Eden in their backyard.

“We love to garden,” he said. “And I do a lot of reading.”

The new free time will likely see Bleyhl exercising his brain playing “Go”, a strategic board game that originated in ancient China.

At 65 years of age, Bleyhl said it was time to retire. He has enjoyed his work in Oak Harbor and is ready to begin a new chapter in his life. With highly competent department heads, his departure will not completely strip the city of its bank of institutional knowledge. “I’m not the sole source of it,” he said. “We have great people. It’s the right time to quit.”

Bleyhl is not obsessing over his future, but relishing the blank slate that awaits him and his wife.

“I just expect things to change,” he said. “It’s a journey and who knows what that journey will be.”

The city is in the process of interviewing applicants for the vacant position.

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