Surrounded by guns and cameras, Oak Harbor City Council changes course

Oak Harbor City Councilman Jim Campbell speaks with John Laigaie, a veteran who runs the Open Carry group. He came from Bellingham to speak at the Oak Harbor Council meeting about the city’s ban on weapons in parks, which the council nullified Tuesday.   - Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor City Councilman Jim Campbell speaks with John Laigaie, a veteran who runs the Open Carry group. He came from Bellingham to speak at the Oak Harbor Council meeting about the city’s ban on weapons in parks, which the council nullified Tuesday.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times

The members of the Oak Harbor City Council were outnumbered and surrounded by men with guns, but they managed to diffuse the situation with parliamentary procedures.

The armed members of the audience ultimately won the day at the Tuesday night meeting as the council members unanimously voted to reverse a ban on guns in city parks. Councilman Rick Almberg created a region-wide controversy by leading the council in a decision not to immediately bring the gun-related city code in compliance with state law, but then dramatically walking out of the last council meeting when his colleagues refused to pass his motion aimed at disarming a member of the audience.

But on Tuedsay the council avoided the spectacle of drawn-out public comments by quickly passing the ordinance and only allowing the audience to speak during a half-hour comment period; they made it clear that it was a threat of a lawsuit, not public pressure, that pushed them to act. Tony Barge, the city’s former police chief, didn’t get a chance to offer his two cents.

The council even silenced Mayor Scott Dudley, who has been a fierce critic of their actions, by adjourning the meeting prior to his regular mayor comment period.

Still, arguments on both sides of the gun-control debate were aired. A total of 179 people, most of them gun-rights advocates, attended the session, along with a media circus that included all the Seattle TV stations and newspaper reporters from across the region. It was literally standing-room-only as all the chairs in the audience were removed to make room for the crowds. Dozens of people were wearing guns. A large-screen TV with a live feed of the meeting was set up in downstairs City Hall to accommodate spill-over.

People started showing up at 11:30 in the morning to sign the list to speak.

Brandon Baza, a 1999 Oak Harbor High School graduate and a disabled Army veteran, was the first one up. He recited state laws and the council’s oath of office, claiming that Almberg violated both at the previous meeting. Baza was wearing a sidearm.

“I would challenge any council members who is unwilling to perform the oath they have sworn to uphold to immediately resign their posts as council members,” he said, earning a loud applause.

On the other side, Oak Harbor resident Pam Fick pointed out that the Supreme Court made it clear that some restrictions on gun rights are constitutional. She spoke about lawmen like Wyatt Earp who made cowboys disarm before coming into town.

“He knew from looking up at the crosses growing on Boot Hill after every weekend that more guns in more hands in more places didn’t make people safer, it just made people more dead,” she said.

The night wasn’t without confrontation or hyperbole.

Oak Harbor resident William Frail came armed with a M1 Garand rifle and a protest sign. He demanded that councilmen Almberg and Joel Servatius resign or be forced from office, calling them “enemies of the U.S. Constitution and the state Constitution.”

“My mother was a Jew. My family went to the chambers,” he said. “I will not go into the night quietly while these two ask me to board the train.”

After the comment period, Councilman Jim Campbell repeatedly asked Almberg and Servatius to respond to demands that they resign. Campbell has been the only member of the council to stand with Dudley on gun rights, though he has appealed for commonsense when it comes to carrying guns.

Almberg pointed out that the interim city attorney advised that his actions did not violate his oath of office. He was interrupted repeatedly by angry outbursts from the audience.

“Mr. Mayor, in all due respect to you, you mislead this public,” he said to Dudley. “You mislead them and you held up the oath of office, saying I violated it. I think you owe all these people an apology out here.”

Servatius didn’t respond to Campbell, but instead read from the rules governing council meeting, pointing out that the mayor is supposed to refrain from debate.

Then after run-of-the-mill agenda items, the council returned to the gun issue. Councilman Bob Severns interrupted the mayor, who was about to allow public comment, and instead made an emergency motion to amend the city code to allow people to carry guns in city parks and the marina. He said it was necessary to take an emergency action because the Second Amendment Foundation sent a letter threatening to sue the city and individual council members if the code wasn’t fixed.

Severns’ motion, broken into three parts, passed unanimously. Councilman Danny Paggao was absent from the meeting.

Councilwoman Beth Munns then immediately made a motion to adjourn the meeting. Dudley was clearly irked and pointed out that there were items left on the agenda, namely comment periods for the city administrator and the mayor. The motion passed unanimously.


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