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Oak Harbor youth services in turmoil

The Oak Harbor youth service coordinator has been on paid administrative leave for the last couple of weeks while an investigation continues, Mayor Patty Cohen said.

Cohen said she could not talk about many specific concerns involving Jennifer Fuentes, but she did say the investigation is taking longer than expected. Both the city legal department and an “outside” investigator hired by the city are probing the matter, Cohen said.

The investigation does not involve law enforcement. City Attorney Phil Bleyhl said putting Fuentes on leave was a non-disciplinary action.

The city administration is concerned, in part, about how grant money was handed out and taken in by the one-person department. There are also concerns over what Fuentes has accomplished since she began her position last February.

The City Council, Cohen and Bleyhl discussed the issues during a closed-door executive session.

“Litigation issues were brought up,” Bleyhl said, but he wouldn’t elaborate.

A specific concern, Cohen said, is how money was funneled from the North Whidbey Youth Coalition, through the school district and to the city.

David Peterson, assistant superintendent of the school district, said the grant for the North Whidbey Youth Coalition wasn’t renewed this fall. He said $20,000 in carry-over money had to be spent in seven days. As a result, the money was divided and handed out to the city youth services coordinator, an anti-drug school program, community youth activities and IDIPIC, a group which educates against drunk driving.

Peterson said the way the district doled out the money complies with grant requirements. The question is whether Fuentes had approval to accept the money, according to a council member.

Cohen said investigators are looking into whether or not former city administrator Thom Myers approved the transfers of grant money.

The youth services department is the brainchild of Councilman Eric Gerber. The city budget has a total of $150,000 set aside for youth services in 2005 and 2006. Fuentes was hired, at about $40,000 a year, on a two-year trial basis.

Despite the budget, the youth services department isn’t meant to directly create any new activities in the community for kids. The coordinator is supposed to work with kids and existing services providers — like the Boys and Girls Club — to figure out what’s missing and then work to fill the holes. Also, she’s supposed to help kids find out about what’s available.

Councilman Paul Brewer said the problem with the position was lack of guidance from the city administration. He pointed out that Fuentes’ office is in the public works building and she didn’t even have a phone when she started.

“She belongs at City Hall,” he said, “where she can have adequate supervision and adequate resources.”

Councilman Gerber said he still has high hopes for the program, though he said the investigation is getting in the way of progress. He said Fuentes was doing a good job.

“Anytime you create a new program and hire a new city employee,” he said, “it takes a little while to get all the kinks out.”

Ashley Elm, a senior at Oak Harbor High School, sent a letter to the News-Times this week, complaining about the youth services program being shut down. She wrote that she was supposed to serve as youth mayor on a City of Oak Harbor Youth Council this summer, but now she’s concerned that it won’t happen.

“I am very upset about the situation,” she said. “This council was here to make a difference and help youth, which is something I feel we really need in our community.”

Fuentes could not be reached for comment.

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