Civil discourse took a backseat Tuesday to yelling, gavel banging and fist slamming during the North Whidbey Park and Recreation District meeting.
In response to the disruption, district commissioners recessed the meeting and a visiting elected official called police.
Moments before the outburst, former district commissioner Steve Hoffmire was the last of 18 public speakers signed up to show support of the North Whidbey Aquatic Club and speak against a proposed motion to de-fund the team’s swim coach.
For Hoffmire, who’s son Shane Hoffmire now serves on the board, the club was family for his mentally disabled daughter. She swam with NWAC for years and now swims with masters.
“This club is the most inclusive sports club on the island,” he said.
Steve Hoffmire was talking about changes in the district over the years when his allotted three minutes were up. Commissioner Donna Sue Holly, who spent the public comment period monitoring a timer, stopped Hoffmire mid-sentence.
NWAC parent Dan Brown, who spoke earlier in the evening and criticized Holly for not making eye contact with constituents as they spoke, rose from his seat and demanded Holly let Steve Hoffmire finish.
Holly and Brown began yelling at each other, and Holly began banging her gavel and board members told Brown to leave and threatened to call the police.
Brown then charged toward the commissioners, slamming the table with his fists, causing pop cans to fly up and spill. A recess was called and Brown walked out of the building.
Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson, who was standing in the back of the room, called Oak Harbor police. Two officers showed shortly after the incident
“That is unacceptable behavior and it feels threatening when you are on the receiving end,” Johnson said Wednesday. “Even though logically you know you are safe … you feel vulnerable when you are under attack like that, and Mr. Brown was very riled up.
“Also, it doesn’t add to the conversation and it is an unfortunate example to set for the children in the room.
“The county and the city both have access to law enforcement when individuals need to be calmed down or removed and so it was a natural instinct to secure the space and ensure there could be productive discussion. Mr. Brown left the facility and the meeting calmed down.”
“It was unfortunate I thought. It didn’t need to go that way.”
Johnson said she attended the meeting because she wanted to make sure she understands what is going on so she could provide support where she could.
“I love swimming and was an active swimmer when I was younger and a member of the NWAC,” Johnson said. “I was there the day they broke ground on the pool, my dad actually took me out of school so I could see it, and I was there for the ribbon cutting. I worked as a lifeguard and a swim instructor and it is a very important facility to me.”
After a short recess, and the spilled drinks cleaned up, the meeting resumed.
Parks Commissioner Wendy Shingleton withdrew her motion that had NWAC parents all riled up. The motion proposed entering into negotiations to have a nonprofit assume financial responsibility of the swim club, including staff, by July 31, or disband the program by August.
She presented a new motion for Executive Dir-ector Steve McCaslin bring options to the May meeting for NWAC and masters to be revenue neutral or independent entities, including all program expenses and staff, by Sept. 1.
Shingleton said she believes the district needs to make changes and that it’s currently under-serving the community.
“My votes on the issue are not personal although I understand they have a personal impact,” she said.
The motion was approved with three votes in favor by commissioners Shingleton Holly and Richard Fort. Hoffmire said he felt the motion was much better than the alternative, that it was an improvement. But he said he didn’t feel it allowed enough time for McCaslin to do what he needed to do or for the club to do what it needed.
At the center of the issue is whether or not the district should be funding a full-time employee who works exclusively as a swim coach for NWAC and masters. The cost of the employee to the district is $61,000, including his salary and associated benefits and costs.
The way district finances are broken out, McCaslin said he charges each program a tax on lane hours. Those taxes go to pay the district overhead. Cost of employees, like the swim coach, are included in those overhead costs.
Based on McCaslin’s way of budgeting, the NWAC program brought in a little over $5,000 in revenue. That’s without the club covering the full cost of the swim coach.
Several of the commissioners argue that NWAC and masters should be paying solely for the swim coach because those programs are the only ones that benefit from the employee.
NWAC parents argue that the way things currently are is fair and it allows the club to keep costs relatively low to make it accessible to children of all financial backgrounds.
“Cas (McCaslin) makes it fair so everyone pays a little bit for everything,” said parent Dawn Brown.
Brown’s daughter is on the swim team and she said it’s allowed her to have the siblings she was never able to have at home.
Brown’s husband was the one who disrupted the meeting. While she was embarrassed it happened, she said a nerve was struck in her husband by the nature of the conversation and what was being interrupted.
Parent Linda Santiago, who also serves as the Blue Heron Booster Club president, said the pool often serves as the only familiar place for military children who move around a lot. She said swimmers whose surroundings constantly change often find comfort in the pool.
The Browns are active NWAC parents and helped with the start of the booster club, which is in its second year. The club raised $15,000 in its first year alone and has made donations to the pool in the way of equipment that everyone can use.
One of the parent’s biggest arguments is the board’s lack of communication and willingness to work with them.
Brown said she thinks the new motion is great because McCaslin has a good relationship with NWAC and will be able to sit down and work with the parents.
Last week, Blue Heron Booster Club President Linda Santiago said the possibility of the club assuming the sole financial responsibility of NWAC wasn’t something the club could do.
This week, Brown said maybe that can happen but the club can only raise what it can raise.
However, the club is willing to look at ways to adjust and make concessions where they could. She suggested maybe looking at absorbing masters into NWAC and having those swimmers practice at the same time as the college swimmers.
Johnson said she is still figuring out some of the facts and perspectives of the overall situation, but ultimately she believes the commissioners are heading in the right direction.
“I agree that the district taxpayers should not be asked to fund a private swim club at the expense of maintenance to our facilities,” she said.
“Without a quality facility, the conversation about who pays for a coach is a moot point. As for the swim team … If they need to engage in fundraising activities to help offset the costs of the club, I would encourage one of those swimmers to come and knock on my door I am good for a donation to the cause.
“To me it’s just the difference between the role of the public funds and private funds.”
“I whole-heartedly support the pool with my tax dollars, and I will equally support the swim team with my private contribution (if asked.)”