By Christon Skinner
During his State of the City address Mayor Dudley finally had an opportunity to explain to the citizens of Oak Harbor his “vision” for the city and how he would implement that vision during the remaining three-and-a-quarter (but who’s counting?) years of his term.
He failed on both counts. Anyone who watched the mayor’s presentation had to see that 90 percent of it was fluff; nothing more than a recap of how many employees served in each department and how many miles of water line the city owns, the number of gallons of water consumed and how “great” everyone was. He told us that his priorities were “public safety,” transparency in government and economic development. But who doesn’t want those things? That’s like telling your constituents you love puppies and ice cream. Interestingly, the very last item on the mayor’s list of objectives was preserving Oak Harbor’s “AAA rating” and maintaining budgetary stability.
After months of silence about his “grand scheme” for Oak Harbor, Mayor Dudley offered Oak Harbor and its City Council no explanation for the multiple department heads he sacked within a few weeks of taking office. Similarly, he provided no solutions for the upcoming budget crisis that he substantially aggravated with his recent personnel decisions. Despite a direct question from a citizen not aligned with his campaign, the mayor refused to provide an explanation for why he fired so many department heads in such a short period of time. If “ums” and “ahs” were dollar bills, we could balance the federal budget with the answer he tried to provide. (Interestingly, despite the mayor’s stated desire for transparency, it took a motion and vote from the city council to override the mayor’s earlier decision to preclude questions and public comment following his address.)
Within a few weeks of the day Mayor Dudley took office in January, he fired the city manager, fired the fire chief, fired the police chief, fired the city attorney, hired a city attorney and then fired the second city attorney that he personally chose to take over after firing the first one. In recent months, the director of human resources, assistant to the city administrator, city clerk, and city engineer all quit their jobs rather than continue under Mayor Dudley’s tenure.
A conservative estimate of the direct costs to the city connected to the mayor’s immediate personnel decisions was more than $500,000. The city finance director provided that number to the council before the mayor fired his own choice for a second replacement city attorney. When he was fired, that second city attorney was entitled to six months’ severance pay and had accumulated two months of vacation pay at the time he was sent on his way. At $10,000 a month, another $80,000 was lost due to the mayor’s “management” style. And still no explanation for why these firings were necessary.
Timeline in doubt
In addition to the cost of firing his own attorney, the mayor’s contract attorneys who took over that one, full time position, are charging the city nearly three times the amount per month that a full time city attorney would be paid with salary and benefits. (Since the city’s insurer covers litigation expenses, the recent legal actions commenced against the city by former employees is not part of this extra cost.)
When asked by a council member about the timeline for hiring a new city attorney, the mayor sputtered that he wasn’t satisfied with the quality of the applicants who submitted their resumes recently, so he intends to wait until the Oct. 16 city council meeting to try and pressure the council into spending even more money to hire a “head hunter” to look for a new city attorney. It was obvious that the mayor’s decision to defer this decision was nothing more than a politically motivated reaction to the City Council’s decision to limit his spending authority in light of his recent personnel decisions.
The city is now operating with an interim police chief, an interim city administrator (the second to hold that position in eight months), an interim city engineer, an interim harbormaster, an acting human resources manager and a temporary, contracted city attorney who bills the city by the hour in addition to a contract minimum. During his State of the City address, Mayor Dudley disclosed that there are now 25 vacant, full time positions in the city of Oak Harbor, six of which are department heads.
When a council member asked about the timeline for hiring a city administrator to fill Paul Schmidt’s shoes, Mayor Dudley eventually conceded that no effort was being made to do that because he had “other priorities” and “a lot of balls in the air.” What?
Many cities as large as ours operate with their city administrator as the chief administrative officer in charge of personnel and budget, while the mayor acts as a figurehead. Those professional administrators serve at the will of the city council so legislative oversight is still a key element of the system. In Oak Harbor, the mayor is telling us he is perfectly content to leave that critical position in limbo rather than make the effort to fill it permanently because he has “other priorities.”
Perhaps it’s time that the citizens of Oak Harbor gave serious consideration to changing its form of government. The “strong mayor” form of government we currently use is no longer viable for Oak Harbor. It is best suited for small communities like Coupeville and Langley where budgets are smaller and personnel numbers run two to three to a department.
Currently, anyone living in the city, over the age of 18 and holding a driver’s license can run for and be elected mayor of the city of Oak Harbor — an office that administers several million budget dollars a year and oversees in excess of 200 employees. We need a form of government that fits the needs of a community that has grown to over 22,000 residents. We need a form of government that utilizes well educated, experienced, professional administrators to deal with large numbers of personnel and multi-million dollar budgets. What we don’t need is more expensive and unguided decisions that are based solely on political promises.
Mayor Dudley could be gone in three years and 99 days; but Oak Harbor will be paying for his hasty political decisions for decades. It’s time to change something before it’s too late.
Christon Skinner is an attorney living in Oak Harbor.