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Oak Harbor power struggle continues with council, mayor

By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News-Times Co-editor
November 14, 2012 · Updated 1:58 PM
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It took an hour of meandering arguments, but the Oak Harbor City Council came to an unanimous decision on the latest in a series of maneuvers that erode Mayor Scott Dudley’s authority.

At the meeting last Wednesday, the council members approved a motion that directs staff members to prepare an amendment to the city’s employee policy manual to limit the mayor’s ability to appoint interim employees in administrative or department-head positions, such as the city administrator, fire chief and police chief.

Specifically, the motion would allow the mayor to appoint interim administrators to two 90-day terms, after which any extension would require approval by the city council.

As the policy currently stands, the mayor can re-appoint employees to serve as interim administrators every 90 days in perpetuity. Several members of the council were especially concerned that Dudley hasn’t made any progress in finding a permanent city administrator; he appointed Larry Cort to fill the position on an interim basis, arguing that filling the seat isn’t a top priority since Cort is doing a great job and saving the city money to boot.

Since taking office in January, Dudley has fired the city administrator, the police chief, the fire chief and two city attorneys. The majority of council members were critical of Dudley for firing the leaders and for not acting quickly to fill many of the empty positions.

Councilman Joel Servatius, who made the original motion, said his motive was to ensure that “key leadership positions” are filled in a timely manner.

Grant Weed, the interim city attorney, said he researched the legality of the motion and found that there’s little guidance in case law. He said state law clearly gives the mayor the authority for hiring employees and managing the day-to-day operation of the city; on the other hand, he said the council has the authority to confirm the mayor’s administrative appointments.

“An indefinite series of interim appointments conflicts with the council’s ability to confirm appointments,” Weed said, but added that it’s unclear at what point the series of interim appointments becomes too much. He suggested that six months would be a good limit for interim appointments.

Early in the deliberations, Councilman Jim Campbell said he was adamantly opposed to the motion, saying he was “flabbergasted” that the council would even consider the motion and that it was just an effort to embarrass the mayor.

Later on, he said he would be in favor of the motion if the word “approval” was switched to “confirmation,” since confirming appointments is the council’s role.

He voted in favor of the final motion, even though it used the word “approval.”

Councilman Rick Almberg said he was in favor of limiting interim appointments for leadership positions.

He said the motion falls under the council’s role of setting policy and wasn’t meant to hamstring the mayor.

The council has, nevertheless, challenged the mayor’s authority in the past, largely out of apprehension over the high costs of terminations and turnover. The council cut the mayor’s spending authority to $10,000.

They maneuvered to prevent him from firing the police chief or public works director by changing their employment status to “for cause.”

They thwarted the mayor’s plan to appoint a new police chief from inside the department by changing the job description.

Some council members tried to prevent the confirmation of the fire chief and then refused to allow the chief to purchase a new rescue truck.

They declared a fiscal emergency and discussed a hiring and firing freeze, but didn’t enact it.

 

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