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Tiff erupts after boycott threat

The owners of Oak Harbor businesses don’t have to fear a boycott for speaking their minds about a proposed tax increase.

The director of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce sent out an email to chamber members Wednesday warning that employees of Island Transit and members of the “Save Our System” campaign had threatened to boycott businesses that didn’t support the transit proposal on the ballot.

But the man who made the threat said he was sorry that he spoke in anger, and asserts that he was speaking as a private citizen and that his comments were exaggerated in the message sent out to businesses.

“I said I was a private citizen and I didn’t mean to imply that we as a group would be taking any action against businesses,” said Oak Harbor resident Henry Trusler, who is a member of S.O.S. and a transit employee.

Likewise, Terese Varney, an Island Transit employee and member of S.O.S., said the group never discussed a boycott or legal action.

“There’s an individual who acted on his own,” she said.

Chamber Director Jill Johnson said she took the threat of a boycott very seriously.

“If someone starts to threaten the businesses, we’re not going to stand by and let that happen,” she said. “People should have the right to participate without fear of retribution.”

Also, she claims Trusler clearly characterized himself as a representative of Island Transit and S.O.S., though she apparently didn’t check with officials from those entities.

“He said ‘you will hear from OUR lawyer’ … not ‘my’ lawyer … then I asked who is ‘our’ and he said ‘the employees (plural) of Island Transit and the Save our System campaign.’ Which implies multiple people,” she wrote in an email.

Yet Johnson may have exaggerated a little in the email to her members, perhaps because of her passion for the businesses in town. Her letter made it seem that multiple people had threatened legal action and were planning an organized boycott, which isn’t the case.

“The Chamber has been directly contacted by individual employees of Island Transit and the ‘Save our System’ campaign, demanding, under threat of litigation, that we disclose the individual member results of our recent survey ... These individuals have threatened this legal action in order to determine specifically who voted to oppose the Island Transit sales tax increase for the purpose of organizing a boycott against those businesses,” she wrote in the letter sent to chamber members Wednesday.

“The Chamber will not respond to this kind of slap action and will protect the privacy, rights, and voice of our businesses.”

Johnson admitted that only Trusler threatened litigation or mentioned a boycott, but said she received other emails from people asking for the names of the businesses that were against the transit proposal.

“Multiple emails on the same thing gives you the impression that it’s an organized effort,” she said.

According to Trusler, he became concerned when he read a Whidbey News-Times story about the Chamber of Commerce recommending that members vote “no” on the Island Transit proposal. He had questions about the survey, so he sent a public disclose request to the chamber. Then he went in the next day to drop off a more complete request.

“What I didn’t expect was the amount of hostility that Jill emanated as she came out of her office and said she didn’t have to respond to the request,” he said. “Unfortunately, I responded in anger and said things I should not have.”

Trusler admitted he threatened a boycott and mentioned that he would get a lawyer to look at the public disclosure issue. He has since realized that the chamber isn’t obligated under public disclosure laws. But he claims he never “threatened litigation” and made it clear to Johnson that he was there as a private citizen.

“The only reason I mentioned Save Our System is because she asked if I was a member,” he said. “What am I going to do, lie?”

Johnson, however, remembers it differently, and she said she has witnesses. She said she was not angry.

“I didn’t raise my voice once,” she said.

In the end, Johnson said the most unfortunate thing about the incident is that it thrust the Chamber of Commerce into the position of being opposed to Island Transit. She said the chamber is very supportive of the transit agency, but the majority of members surveyed are against the specific proposal.

“The board members feels there are too many unanswered questions and options out there that haven’t been explored,” she said. “We didn’t set ourselves up to be the anti-transit campaign. We expressed our opinion and wanted to leave it at that, but they keep pulling us back into the fray.”

The Aug. 18 ballot includes a proposal to raise the sales tax three-tenths of 1 percent for Island Transit. Without it, transit officials say service will have to be cut by about one-third.

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