The rejection of the Oak Harbor mayor’s appointment for city attorney has left the city without a permanent city attorney and few, if any, prospects for filling the position in the future.
In the meantime, the mayor and council members are blaming each other for getting into this situation, which may lead to higher legal bills in the long run and a lack of stability in the attorney’s office.
Mayor Scott Dudley said the council’s 5-2 vote to reject the applicant was another in a series of politically motivated decisions aimed at obstructing his authority.
“What we have is a dysfunctional City Council that is taking it out on an applicant because they don’t like the mayor,” he said in an interview.
Councilwoman Tara Hizon, on the other hand, argued that the mayor had a much more experienced applicant for the job, but chose the less-experienced candidate whom he knew likely wouldn’t be confirmed.
“We still have an interested and extremely qualified applicant in the wings, there’s no logical reason to delay this process any longer,” she wrote in an email. “Mayor Dudley can dig in his heels and punish the council at the expense of the city’s well-being, but doing so would be poor leadership in my opinion.”
The disagreement means that Grant Weed of the Snohomish firm Weed, Graafstra and Benson will continue indefinitely to act as interim city attorney on a contract basis. The city contracted with Weed after Dudley fired two previous city attorneys over a five-month period.
Council members have complained that maintaining the contract is much more expensive than having an in-house attorney.
Tuesday, Dudley asked the seven council members to confirm his choice for the city attorney position. He chose Bert “Dee” Boughton, a former city prosecutor and assistant city attorney in Port Townsend, from two candidates.
Boughton gave a speech about himself, emphasizing his integrity and work ethic.
Five of the council members, however, said they couldn’t support Boughton because of his lack of experience in areas of the law that city attorneys are likely to deal with, such as land-use regulations, military and tribal relations and labor negotiations. They pointed out that his resume doesn’t match the job description advertised for the position.
“I’m concerned about paying top dollar for someone who doesn’t meet minimum qualifications,” Councilwoman Beth Munns said.
Councilman Rick Almberg was also worried about the money. He argued that Boughton will have to rely on Weed for help, which will be costly.
“I’m not really interested in having an employee at $100,000-something a year who has to have backup,” he said.
Under the proposed contract, Boughton would have earned $101,000 a year, plus benefits, for a total package of $135,000 a year.
Almberg pointed out that the city has had a very difficult time finding applicants, which he said is because the mayor unceremoniously fired two respected attorneys from the position as well as other administrators. The city ended up hiring a headhunting firm to find applicants, but only two were identified; they were Boughton and an experienced city attorney from Eastern Washington.
“We’ve basically worn out the market in this area because of our reputation and the way other employees have been treated,” he said.
Hizon emphasized that the panel of city officials who interviewed the two candidates preferred the more experienced attorney.
“Every single person in the room lobbied the mayor on behalf of the other candidate,” she said.
Councilman Jim Campbell interjected that it is the mayor’s sole responsibility, under state law, to hire employees and appoint people to management positions. Until last year, the mayor appointed city attorneys without getting council confirmation, but the council changed that.
Campbell and Councilman Danny Paggao, who took part in the interview process, voted in favor of confirming Boughton. They said they were impressed by his enthusiasm and work ethic.
Thursday, Dudley said he will “absolutely not” appoint the alternate candidate to the position. He said he decided the candidate was not the right man for the job after interviewing him and checking references.
Dudley said the council’s rejection has long-term implications for the city.
“What transpired Tuesday night is going to make it more difficult to find any applicants willing to throw their hats in,” he said.