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Will Oak Harbor City Council election serve as a referendum on mayor?
Political observers in Oak Harbor see the upcoming election as a poll of sorts on public opinion of ongoing friction between Mayor Scott Dudley and the City Council.
Cause of the division, however, depends on whom you ask.
Some see it as a partisan divide, with echoes of the larger national struggle over the heart of the Republican party.
Others said they see a conflict between a reformer and the “good old boys” network.
Some said they think it’s a personality conflict between oversized personalities.
Dudley said it spawns from camaraderie between the council and city staff.
“We have a council that seems to think they work for the staff,” he said. “I work for the citizens of Oak Harbor and sometimes that means I have to make hard decisions.”
Although they all resist such categorization, the eight candidates in the council election are viewed as being either in the mayor’s “camp” or on the side of the council.
Dudley helped perpetuate this perception by campaigning door-to-door for the candidates he supports: Lucas Yonkman, Sandi Peterson, Mike Piccone and Councilman Jim Campbell.
The other candidates — Councilman Bob Severns, Councilman Joel Servatius, Councilman Danny Paggao and Skip Pohtilla — are viewed by some as supporting, or being part of, the council’s efforts to reign in the mayor.
In forums and interviews, all of the candidates maintained they are independent thinkers and not beholden to anyone but the citizens.
Nonetheless, both sides acknowledge that results of November’s election could not only reshape the relationship between the mayor and council, but may determine what happens with multi-million-dollar projects and the future of the city.
Detractors of the mayor, including attorney Christon Skinner, claim Dudley is intolerant of different opinions and is supporting candidates he believes will be “rubber-stamp” votes for his agenda.
“If you disagree with him, his response is to get rid of you,” Skinner said.
Dudley admits to picking sides in this election; he said he wants to see council members elected who are willing to listen to his ideas.
“I could come before council with the cure for cancer and they’d ignore it because it came from me,” Dudley said.
Understanding the rift between the mayor and current council may be key to interpreting the election, but the cause of the divisiveness is under debate.
Councilman Rick Almberg, perhaps the mayor’s most vocal critic, said he supported Dudley when he sought appointment to Councilwoman Sheilah Crider’s seat after she became county auditor. Bob Severns got the appointment, but Dudley successfully ran for a different seat and won in the November 2009 election.
Almberg said his good opinion of Dudley quickly soured.
He alleges Dudley exaggerated his military service and claimed he was a Navy SEAL.
Dudley strongly denies Almberg’s assertions, saying he was always clear that he entered the program — Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training — but had to leave after breaking his back.
Skinner, a longtime council watcher, said the rift between Dudley and other city leaders goes back to former mayor Jim Slowik’s project to remodel the downtown section of Pioneer Way and convert it into a one-way street.
Skinner speculates that Dudley probably didn’t seek office with a particular agenda, but was “co-opted” by a group of downtown merchants opposed to the one-way plan.
Dudley wasn’t the only council member against the plan, but he went the furthest by asking Island County commissioners to pull a grant for the project.
Dudley said the economic development grant was given to the city based on a two-way road. He said studies showed that one-way roads decrease business, so it didn’t make sense to spend tax dollars earmarked for improving the economy.
Then-Councilman Dudley, often with the support of Campbell, set himself apart from colleagues on other issues as well. Before he was elected to the council, there was relative harmony between Mayor Slowik and the council, which many saw as a welcome change from the past.
Dudley wasn’t afraid to criticize city staff about problems with another road project and an Open Public Meetings Act issue.
Many residents became upset with the Slowik administration after Native American remains were unearthed during the Pioneer Way project after the state warned city officials to hire an archaeologist. The result was costly for the city.
Dudley ran for mayor as a reformer, arguing that there was a lack of accountability in City Hall. A group of police officers campaigned in support of Dudly and said they had concerns about city leadership.
Dudley enjoyed support across the political spectrum. He was supported by both a local conservative blog site, and liberal-minded council watcher Shane Hoffmire.
Hoffmire said he and his wife thought that the Pioneer Way project was emblematic of the Slowik administration’s deafness to the community.
The Hoffmires helped with Dudley’s successful campaign, hoping he would make changes once in office.
After the election, fighting started before Dudley took office.
Almberg foresaw that Dudley would terminate some city employees, particularly those he had criticized. Almberg proposed a motion to prevent firings, but it went nowhere because it impinged on the mayor’s lawful executive powers to hire and fire staff.
After taking office, Dudley fired the city administrator, city attorney and fire chief; he gave the police chief a deadline for retiring. He later fired the replacement city attorney and was sued by the city engineer for allegedly creating a hostile work environment that led to him quitting.
Campbell, the councilman most supportive of the mayor, said he believes the hard feelings between the mayor and other members of the council spawn from the spate of terminations.
He defends Dudley, saying it makes sense — and isn’t unusual — for an incoming CEO to let go of the people who don’t share his vision.
Campbell said he might have handled it differently, but wasn’t privy to Dudley’s reasoning.
The council majority cited the high costs of paying severance packages, loss of institutional knowledge and effect on employee morale.
Some council members tried to block the hiring of Ray Merrill as fire chief, accusing the mayor of making a political appointment; they later delayed the purchase of a rescue rig for the fire department, which some saw as political payback.
In an extraordinary move, the City Council tried to change city code to protect Police Chief Rick Wallace and the public works director from being fired by making them, as individuals, “for cause” employees.
The mayor fired Wallace just before the council was scheduled to vote on the change.
The council cut Dudley’s spending authority, declared a financial emergency and mandated a giant reserve fund. Almberg said he pushed through measures to protect city’s finances from what he called Dudley’s reckless decisions.
A vocal group of Dudley’s supporters, including Hoffmire and former Councilman Paul Brewer, rallied to Dudley’s defense and accused the council of obstructionism.
Bill Strowbridge, co-founder of the conservative blog site, said the underlying reason that the council was upset is because Dudley upset the traditional power structure in the city.
The “good old boys,” he said, didn’t want to let go.
Dudley said he had no choice other than to fire the people he believed weren’t doing well at their jobs.
He said council members were upset because of their friendships and investments in relationships with the administrative staff.
Dudley’s support base shifted after a couple of controversies earlier this year.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, the City Council resisted a code amendment to bring the rules in accord with state law by allowing firearms in city parks.
Almberg claims the mayor orchestrated a media circus by alerting TV news stations and urging Second Amendment activists to attend council.
Dudley was unapologetic, saying he protected both First and Second Amendment rights from attacks by the council. He publicly criticized council members, accusing them of violating the oath of office by not amending the code.
Later, council members accused Dudley of trying to ignite another controversy over prayer at meetings.
The issue appeared on the agenda without warning and members of the religious community showed up at council with concerns about restrictions.
The council allowed the prayers to continue and questioned why the issue was even raised.
Hot-button issues galvanized Dudley’s support among Tea Party members and other conservative Republicans, but lost him the backing of liberals and some moderates.
Hoffmire said he’s disappointed in Dudley.
“Honestly, I think Scott has ginned up a lot of controversy,” he said, “a lot of fabricated political issues.”
Dudley’s latest disagreement with the council involves plans for the sewage treatment plant, estimated to cost up to $93.5 million.
With an eye on cost, Dudley criticized the engineering firm for the treatment plant and proposed taking a step back to look at other options; City Council members accuse the mayor of playing politics, pointing out that he voted for the downtown location he now questions.
Council members say that delays now will only increase costs.
The election, however, has the potential for changing the dynamics on the council, as well as the calculus over such major issues.
“I certainly see the election as a referendum on the mayor and the current council,” Hoffmire said. “I think the future of the city is hanging in the balance.”