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Dillard residents angered, allege obstruction by city

Many residents of Dillard’s Addition in Oak Harbor are angrier than ever over a sewer system that was built for them without their knowledge and the city’s ensuing response to their concerns.

At a City Council meeting Wednesday, four residents of the waterfront neighborhood complained at length, focusing on what they felt was the city administration and staff’s efforts to impede their ability to collect public information and obstruct the progress of two committees council members set up to help settle the sewer issue.

“We have been met with resistance, obfuscation, withholding of documents and information,” said resident Carroll Young. “You, mayor, have cancelled indefinitely all meetings of one committee and another Dillard citizen committee is in limbo.”

In response, the City Council unanimously voted to reconstitute the so-called Dillard Committee with a slight change in membership, an apparent rebuke of Mayor Patty Cohen’s controversial decision to take an outspoken Dillard resident off the committee. Councilman Eric Gerber was absent.

“What has become clear to me is there’s a lot of unanswered questions,” said Councilman Larry Eaton, who will resume his position as chairman of the committee.

“I think the city has broken faith with members of the Dillard Committee,” he said.

The complicated controversy began last March when the City Council approved the preliminary approval of a latecomer’s agreement submitted by a developer who wanted to extend sewer service to all 30 homes in the Dillard’s Addition area, and then charge the residents for hooking in.

The problem was that the vast majority of residents didn’t know about the project until contractors started digging up their streets. City officials claimed notification wasn’t required by city code, though they admitted it could have been done as a courtesy. But the code does say the residents will be required to hook up, which will cost them an estimated $15,000 to $20,000 each.

Most of the residents are not happy with the type of pressurized system that was chosen for them, apparently to cut upfront costs for the developer. It requires each home to have an expensive pump and grinder, which residents say have a short lifespan and won’t work in power outages — among many other concerns.

The City Council set up an ad hoc committee to look at city code regarding latecomer’s agreements, as well as how to deal broadly with the number of homes on septic tanks in the city.

Later, the council set up a second committee to look specifically at Dillard’s Addition. The exact purpose of the committee is under contention, but minutes from the meeting state that it was meant to create a dialogue between the neighborhood and the city.

So far, the committees have accomplished little and have only aggravated the controversy.

Wednesday, Dillard residents accused the city of violating the state’s open government laws.

The ad hoc committee’s last meeting in July was cancelled by city administration after a resident of Dillard’s Addition, Robyn Kolaitis, notified the city she wanted to videotape it. City Administrator Paul Schmidt said the cancellation was to give the city attorney time to research the legalities of videotaping. So far, the meeting hasn’t been rescheduled.

Resident Duane Dillard outlined the unusual history of the Dillard’s Committee. At an early meeting, he said City Adminstrator Paul Schmidt violated the Open Meetings Act by trying to prevent a member from audio taping the meeting. The next time the committee met, he said Mayor Cohen had replaced two outspoken members, replacing one with a man who doesn’t live in the neighborhood and didn’t attend.

Carroll Young, a member of the committee who was removed, told the council it has taken five months to receive still-incomplete information from the city about the proposed sewer system. She said the city inappropriately responded to her request for public documents by not fully disclosing information and giving invalid reasons for not releasing other data.

“RCWs were cited as reasons for withholding certain documents,” she said. “One such RCW does not exist and another was on campaign finance.”

Kolaitis, another committee member who was removed, said complete strangers have contacted her to share their experience of having their rights denied by the city. She set up an email account, ohcrd@comcast.net, which stands for Oak Harbor Citizens Rights Denied.

“I am appalled by the things I have learned,” she said.

In the end, the council restarted the Dillard Committee and placed Kolaitis back on it, removing the member who doesn’t live or own property in the area. They will meet again in September.

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