A good choice, a poor process | Editorial

Ray Merrill is an excellent choice for Oak Harbor’s next fire chief. Too bad he got burned Tuesday night as city council members complained with justification over how Merrill came to be Mayor Scott Dudley’s recommended choice for the position.

A small panel appointed by Dudley had interviewed several candidates after Dudley fired the former chief at the start of his administration. Merrill was a  21-year veteran of the OHFD before retiring and then taking a training job with the rural North Whidbey Fire and Rescue.

The interview panel, including the city’s human resources director and Councilwoman Beth Munns, chose two finalists among only a handful who applied during the hurried process to replace Chief Mark Soptich, whose last day on the job was March 6.

Mayor Dudley was within his rights to pick Merrill as his choice for the next chief, even though the panel leaned toward Steve Able, a retired Mount Vernon fire chief.  But he should have been more public in the process, particularly since doing things openly was one of his key campaign themes. And he definitely should have been more open with the city council, whose approval was needed to put Merrill in the captain’s chair.

Both finalists should have been introduced to the council and subjected to questions from the council members and the public. In the past, potential police chiefs have been paraded before the public prior to the mayor making a final recommendation.

After fully vetting both candidates in public, Mayor Dudley should then have made his choice known to the city council. It would have taken longer, but there’s time. Oak Harbor’s professional firefighters can carry on without a chief indefinitely. The council members would likely would have welcomed Merrill back with open arms if they had felt more involved in the process.

Tuesday’s meeting ended with the proposal tabled. Hopefully, Ray Merrill takes none of this personally, keeps his name in contention, and waits patiently while the mayor belatedly covers his bases. The process  may not have to begin anew, but the council and public should get a chance to meet and question the proposed new chief and perhaps the other finalist.

After that, Ray Merrill should be hired. There’s not a better person for the job in terms of professionalism, public and departmental respect and experience. It’s not his fault that Mayor Dudley forgot about his commitment to open government.


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