Dispute attracts state auditor

It appears the frustrated residents of Dillard’s Addition who have repeatedly asked the Oak Harbor City Council to launch an independent investigation into the legalities of their sewer issue will finally see action. But not through the city.

Councilman Larry Eaton, earlier this month, reached the end of his tether and strongly recommended calling for an investigation. The council at the time voted to table the motion until the scope of the undertaking could be ascertained and the details adequately ironed out.

The sewer controversy began last April when the City Council approved an application for a preliminary latecomer’s agreement submitted by Robert Anderson under the name Granite Parks Holdings Company, LLC. The document allowed the developer to install a low-pressure, grinder pump sewer system for the entire neighborhood without first notifying the residents of the system to which they would ultimately be required to connect. That marked the first communication breakdown.

After a heated October public hearing the council voted to purchase the sewer system for $125,000 from developer Anderson, providing him reimbursement and simultaneously satisfying the majority of the residents who did not want to pay to connect to the system.

Eaton, one of three outgoing council members, spent his final meeting Tuesday reaching the end of a whole new tether after being informed that the state auditor’s office is already conducting its own investigation into the city’s actions in the matter as part of an annual audit.

“I spent the last four days setting out a motion,” Eaton said, describing the involved process that had monopolized his time. He said he was not aware the auditor’s office could simply decide to conduct an investigation.

City Finance Director Doug Merriman said the auditor opted to review compliance and legalities with regards to Dillard’s Addition because of constituent concern registered with the state office. Public meeting regulations, cash receipting and construction concerns would all be scrutinized.

Merriman said because of the nature of the letter, he felt an additional 30 to 32 hours would be required to carry out the investigation, taking on an extra $2,500 to the city’s bill. Once the study is complete, the city will be able to examine the letter.

Eaton was incensed that other people in the community, including some of his council colleagues, seemed to know about the audit while he was in the dark.

“I agonized over this,” he said.

Merriman assured Eaton that the auditor did not know the extra time would be needed until the issue had already been discussed by the City Council.

Councilwoman Sue Karahalios, also participating in her final meeting, said she was told by the auditor that concerns were not generated solely by constituent complaints.

“They look and follow the media,” she said.

Mayor Patty Cohen, yet another elected official sitting in on her final meeting, tried to appease Eaton, explaining that when the investigation details tossed around by the council were unclear and did not seem to be in line with his audit request. Eaton was not easily placated.

“The nature of the whole thing just smells to high heaven for me,” he said.

Councilman Eric Gerber said the auditor’s job is to protect the public. He suggested waiting for the findings and then proceeding.

Dillard’s resident Emma Young was pleased to hear about the state’s investigation. She said, however, that a separate examination of the sewer system itself should be an additional requirement.

“We do not believe that it conforms to city or state codes or standards, and that the proper environmental and code reviews were not performed,” she said. “Proper inspections were not conducted. The state Department of Ecology would probably be the proper agency to review this aspect of the debacle.

“Protocols for these inspections need to be developed in cooperation and with the approval of Dillard’s residents who have spent hundreds of personal hours researching these matters,” Young said.

Young submitted copies of a piece of paper bearing the signatures of 29 residents of the shoreline development.

A back-and-forth discussion that ensued between council members about the need for a motion ultimately devolved into confusion and frustration. Paul Brewer, the third council member on his way out after losing a bid for mayor in the recent election, said he was fed up with hastily passed ordinances, of which one involving the grinder system was approved prior to the investigation “talks.”

“We should err on the side of the public, rather than on the side of the ordinance,” he said, adding that the audit extension would not have been necessary if the city had been more courteous to the public.

After waiting patiently for his turn to register his disgust, Councilman Jim Campbell let fly a cryptic but emphatic admonition.

“I’m not going to put my mouth on this,” he said. “We’ve beat this puppy to death and it’s time to move on.”

The council finally voted to table the motion until the second meeting in January. Eaton, echoing Young’s sentiments, issued a motion to launch a separate investigation into the public sewer system itself.

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