A simple request for a rescue aid truck for the Oak Harbor Fire Department may win the award for the most scrutinized and controversial equipment purchase in city history.
The city council finally approved the request from the fire chief during a heated special meeting Thursday evening. It marked the fourth time in four months that the council was asked to approve the purchase of the $128,000 truck.
The motion passed in a 5-1 vote, with Councilman Joel Servatius voting against the purchase. Councilwoman Beth Munns was absent.
Mayor Scott Dudley called the special meeting in response to Councilman Rick Almberg’s motion at the last regular meeting to hold a workshop with North Whidbey Fire and Rescue; Almberg suggested the city could save a great deal of money by purchasing a used rescue truck from North Whidbey.
Thursday, North Whidbey Fire and Rescue officials answered questions about the trucks that may become available, but Oak Harbor Fire Chief Ray Merrill made it clear that the trucks didn’t meet his department’s needs.
The rest of meeting didn’t exactly go as smoothly. At one point, Councilman Joel Servatius interrupted Mayor Scott Dudley, yelling “point of order” as the mayor spoke over him and Councilman Jim Campbell slammed his fist on the table.
“Once again I take an affront, I find it offensive when someone raises a point of order. Your job as presiding officer is to acknowledge that person, not to speak over them,” Servatius later said to Dudley.
In an unusual twist, Servatius admitted to contacting one of the companies that lost the bid to supply the city with the rescue truck; he said the company now says they have a truck with the specification the city needs. He made a motion to re-bid the process.
Dudley told Servatius that he overstepped his bounds by contacting the company. The mayor said he contacted Municipal Research and Services Center and was told that Servatius “tainted the process.” He said re-bidding could lead to a lawsuit.
Servatius’ motion lost in a 1-5 vote.
Almberg then made a motion to defer the decision on the purchase to the next regular meeting when the city attorney will be present. The motion lost on a 2-3 vote.
In the end, Almberg said he was reluctantly joining Councilman Jim Campbell, Councilman Bob Severns and Councilwoman Tara Hizon in passing a resolution to buy the truck.
While Oak Harbor firefighters finally got their rescue truck, the contentious process has left them a little hot under the collar. Firefighters, as well as the mayor, believe the long delay was political payback over a controversy related to the appointment of the fire chief, but the council members say they were simply looking out for the city’s fiscal welfare.
“It’s not a political issue for me and I’m certainly not doing this to be antagonistic,” Councilman Rick Almberg said in an interview before the Thursday meeting.
Almberg said he put the purchase request under a microscope because he felt the fire chief was giving council “a sales job” in order to get a truck he had chosen before going out for bids. As a result, Almberg said he discovered less expensive alternatives that he felt should have been explored.
Mayor Scott Dudley isn’t buying it.
“It’s absolutely political,” he said. “There’s no justification for it. I’ve never seen this kind of micromanaging from the council before.”
Firefighter Steve McClamont, the president of the firefighters’ charitable organization, agrees.
“It looks political wrangling to me,” he said. “Do they really hate the mayor that much? We just need a front-line vehicle.”
The tension between the fire department and a few members of the council goes back to the beginning of the year when Dudley came into office and fired a series of people in management positions, including the fire chief. Dudley then appointed Merrill, but some council members balked because they felt Dudley had promised the job to Merrill in a political maneuver before coming into office.
Merrill was eventually confirmed during a raucous meeting at which many firefighters were present to support him.
Then in the summer, the council approved a request for the fire department to go out to bid for a rescue truck. The bids came in, but the majority of council members were concerned about the city’s financial challenges and deferred the purchase until after the budget was approved and the firefighters’ union negotiations were complete.
McClamont said Almberg’s motion that tied labor negotiations to the purchase of equipment rubbed the firefighters the wrong way and may have violated labor law.
“I think he was walking a fine line,” McClamont said.