Dispute overshadows council pick

An unresolved, controversy-coated allegation hung in the air at Tuesday night’s Oak Harbor City Council meeting, overshadowing the interview and subsequent appointment of Bob Severns to the vacant seat.

Last month, a three-member standing committee tasked with making a recommendation for paring down a pool of nine candidates to a three chose to meet in executive session to discuss individual qualifications of former councilwoman Sheilah Crider’s ultimate successor. Crider was recently appointed county auditor.

The closed session was called after the public was allowed to listen to the triumvirate set three general criteria to use as a benchmark.

Following another executive session at a March 4 meeting, the standing committee revealed to the City Council their three recommendations: Walter Caravan, Scott Dudley and Bob Severns.

Tuesday, Councilmember Danny Paggao drastically changed the direction of the meeting, the purpose of which was simple: interview the three candidates and appoint a new councilman.

Paggao claimed that a fourth criterion was added to the original three by an unnamed council member during the March 4 executive session. He questioned the fairness of the alleged addition and also the impetus behind the modification. He said the alleged criterion excluded any applicant who ran in the last election either for the City Council or the mayor position, which would apply to only one candidate. Paul Brewer, a former city councilman, ran for mayor last fall against Jim Slowik.

Councilman Jim Campbell, a member of the original standing committee, said only the standard three criteria was used.

“It was not discussed in any meeting I was at,” he said.

Rick Almberg and Eric Gerber, the two other committee members, both echoed Campbell’s assertion. Gerber said he had the meeting’s minutes and no such criterion was recommended.

Paggao again alleged the addition was made during the executive session and recommended omitting it from consideration. Campbell was visibly nonplussed.

“I’d like to know how we can remove a criterion that was never there in the first place,” he said.

Mayor Slowik said if any such criterion existed it was a personal choice, implying that it was never verbalized.

“We have no control over that,” he said.

Brewer, who attended the meeting Tuesday, did not sugarcoat his vehement disapproval of the selection process.

“That eliminated only one person,” he said of the alleged fourth criterion. “That eliminated me.”

Brewer said after serving the community for 12 years on the council, he was personally offended by his exclusion from the short list.

“To me, this smells of back room politics,” he said, adding that, if the fourth criterion did not exist, each council member should be able to individually issue their denial.

Brewer’s challenge to the elected officials was never addressed, as local attorney Chris Skinner took the podium and cautioned the council from being “sidetracked by divisive politics” he claimed one specific council member had employed for years. He also postulated that Paggao’s question was “clearly engineered by Brewer.”

“Your process should be followed and you shouldn’t deviate from that,” he told the council, suggesting they “stick to their guns” and refrain from answering Brewer one-by-one.

Brewer approached the podium again and Slowik promptly told him to sit down.

“It’s not a debate, Mr. Brewer,” the mayor said.

Paggao denied the implication that he and Brewer were in collusion. He said he first expressed concern about the criterion during the executive session.

The council, including Paggao, did not bite when Slowik asked if any members wanted a name added to the list.

When the contentiousness abated, the interviews began. Each candidate was asked the same list of questions while the other two waited in a separate room out of earshot. The questions ranged from what the applicants felt was the most pressing problem for the city, to their approach to using scarce city resources for the betterment of the community, to the reason they applied for the post.

The candidates all fielded the questions with an impressive comportment. Shying away from another executive session, Slowik opted to have the council publicly discuss the three candidates while they were present. Going around the board table, the council members rendered their decisions, each one almost a carbon copy of the previous. Caravan, a relative newcomer to Whidbey Island, was said to lack local knowledge and Campbell added that he was not as prepared as the others. Dudley was also passed over because most of the council said he was not as prepared as Severns, a longtime resident and local businessman.

Each council member emphasized the difficulty of choosing between three excellent candidates. Severns, however, emerged as the unanimous choice.

Gerber, using a point system apparently known only to him, graded each applicant out of 30 possible points. Caravan received a score of 22.5, followed by Dudley’s 25 and Severns’ top score of 25.5.

“Bob Severns was half a point higher,” Gerber said.

The new councilman took his place at the table once sworn in by Slowik.

Brewer was still fuming Thursday afternoon. He said he and Paggao deserve a public apology for the implication of collusion.

“I think what they did to Danny was unconscionable,” he said. “He does not lie.”

Paggao was told he misunderstood what he construed as a fourth criterion, Brewer continued.

“He didn’t misunderstand anything,” he said in Paggao’s defense. “The implication was that Danny doesn’t understand because of his background, because he’s Filipino.”

Brewer resented Skinner’s comments and said he was a “plant” used to discredit and set up the rejected candidate.

“The mayor allowed Skinner to come in and attack Danny and myself,” he contended.

Brewer said the public spurning only energized him and for the next two years he will be an activist for open and transparent government, which he said has been taken away by the current city leaders. He vowed to return to politics.

“I don’t take this lying down,” he said. “They just don’t know Paul Brewer. They think they got me. They didn’t. They will not silence me.”

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