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Oak Harbor gun debate heats up with walk out

Oak Harbor City Councilman Rick Almberg questions the city attorney about gun laws during the Tuesday night council meeting. He later walked out after his motion to ask armed citizens to check their weapons in council chambers failed to pass. - Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor City Councilman Rick Almberg questions the city attorney about gun laws during the Tuesday night council meeting. He later walked out after his motion to ask armed citizens to check their weapons in council chambers failed to pass.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times

No guns were drawn or even visible, but a councilman’s confrontation with an armed audience member ended dramatically Tuesday night as the elected official left the meeting when his colleagues refused to pass a motion to disarm the man.

The confrontation has amped up gun control debate in Oak Harbor, which mirrors many of the discussions occurring nationwide since the Dec. 14 shooting that left 20 children and six staff members dead at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

The question being argued in Oak Harbor is whether people should be able to carry firearms in public places like city parks or council chambers. Councilman Rick Almberg, with support from Councilman Joel Servatius, has taken a stand against allowing guns in such public places. Almberg acknowledges that the council may not have the authority to preempt state law, but he wants to bring attention to the issue.

“Currently, state law does preclude citizens from carrying the firearms in places like jails or courts and related facilities,” Almberg wrote in a statement to the News-Times, which can be read in its entirety on page A7. “So the issue is not whether possession of a gun in certain locations can be regulated; it’s a matter of which places state lawmakers are willing to regulate. In the view of recent mass shootings, I think this is a subject that needs immediate attention.”

Mayor Scott Dudley, on the other hand, said he expects the next council meeting on Feb. 5 to be very popular and that armed people may be in attendance. He said he reached out to a gun rights advocate who attended the Jan. 2 council meeting armed with a gun and suggested he may want to attend the next meeting; he said he hasn’t asked anyone to bring guns to the meeting, as has been rumored.

The likelihood of firearms at the meeting, in turn, has prompted council regular Shane Hoffmire to ask council members to move the meeting to a court or school, where guns aren’t allowed.

Dudley has been very critical of Almberg and Servatius for their actions and scolded them at the meeting, saying they weren’t living up to the oath of office. In an interview, he said Almberg should consider resigning if he has to leave a meeting just because people are demonstrating their constitutional rights.

“We have a couple of councilmen who have lost sight of what their job is,” he said. “Their actions are very disappointing. Ludicrous.”

Lucas Yonkman, an Oak Harbor native and a disabled Army veteran, inadvertently touched off the controversy. Yonkman was medically discharged from the military after being seriously wounded when his Stryker vehicle was hit by an IED in Afghanistan.

He attended the council meeting Tuesday expecting that an old city ordinance banning guns from parks was going to be on the agenda. City council members had previously refused to change the ordinance, even though it violates state law.

The matter wasn’t on the agenda, but Hoffmire addressed the issue during the public comment period, saying that guns should not be allowed in public places.

Yonkman decided to speak on the other side of the issue.

“I carry a weapon every day for the purpose of protecting people,” he said, later adding that he would protect any person with his own life.

Councilman Rick Almberg interrupted the public comment period to ask Yonkman if he was carrying a gun on him. Yonkman said he was.

Almberg then made a motion that anyone with a gun in the council chamber will be asked to check the weapon with the police chief, who normally attends council meetings, or to leave the premises. Councilman Joel Servatius seconded the motion. Almberg later said he would leave the meeting if his motion wasn’t passed.

Mayor Dudley was clearly not happy.

“The council is taking up a motion to take away your constitutional rights,” he said.

The other council members, however, were sympathetic to Almberg’s point of view.

Servatius said there’s no reason for armed people to be at the meetings since the police chief and other officers are normally present.

“Citizens have told me they are too afraid or too intimidated to attend city council meetings if firearms are present,” he said after the meeting. “This does not serve the public’s interest, it only serves to stifle public participation. ... There should be common ground between the law, individual’s rights, and public safety.”

Councilwoman Tara Hizon said the same logic that applies to the law banning guns from courtrooms should apply to council chambers. But she said the motion was made in “a haphazard way” and that it should be analyzed by staff before coming to a vote.

Councilman Bob Severns also said he was uncomfortable with guns in the chambers, but he agreed with Hizon that the issue needs more thought.

Councilwoman Beth Munns said she also feels it isn’t appropriate for citizens to be armed in the council chambers.

“I must admit I am very uncomfortable,” she said, “and especially if we have a room of 20 people who decided to show their Second Amendment rights I would probably ask to adjourn the meeting.”

Councilman Jim Campbell, however, said he was against the motion because it was made during public comment period, which violates council protocol.

Councilman Danny Paggao was absent from the meeting.

Almberg’s motion failed in a 2-4 vote, with Almberg and Servatius voting in favor. Almberg then stood up and left the meeting.

Mayor Dudley pointed out at the end of the meeting that Almberg’s motion would not have been enforceable. Police Chief Ed Green said he doesn’t work for the council and doesn’t enforce motions in violation of state law.

“We have a couple of council members, and these were the same council members who were trying to dictate whether you could wear a hat in council chambers, are now trying to take away your right to bear arms,” Dudley said, addressing Yonkman.

 

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