City administrator appointed in unconventional process

Combs is Oak Harbor’s new city administrator, but the appointment process was a bit unusual.

Sabrina Combs is Oak Harbor’s new city administrator, but the appointment process was a bit out of the ordinary.

The Oak Harbor City Council approved Mayor Ronnie Wright’s appointment of Combs in a 4-3 vote, with some council members raising concerns about the process. Combs had been acting as the interim city administrator since the mayor fired the former administrator.

In addition, the council added some unusual language to a motion to approve Combs as city administrator after going into an executive session to discuss potential litigation. Afterward, council members said they couldn’t discuss what the potential litigation entailed.

Throughout the process, Wright was steadfast in his support of Combs.

“In my 20 years of leadership experience, I have only encountered one individual that possesses the communication skills that Sabrina demonstrates on a daily basis,” Wright said at the council meeting. “Communication is vital in leadership, and I have all the confidence in the world in Sabrina. She has my full support for this position as soon as it is available.”

The council’s decision came after some last-minute agenda shuffling, with “staff” requesting to move the employment contract to after an executive session.

After the executive session, the motion to appoint Combs was amended to add “as soon as the position becomes available.” Council members also wouldn’t discuss what that language means or why the position isn’t currently available.

The process has been frustrating and unorthodox, Councilmember Shane Hoffmire said in an interview. When former city administrator Blaine Oborn was terminated, Combs was considered for a deputy city administrator position, with duties described at a February workshop. Later, when it was found the city’s charter requires a city administrator, she was made interim city administrator.

For much of this, the council has been kept out of the loop, Hoffmire said.

“I knew there would be a steep learning curve, and I’m a little concerned that it might be getting ready to hit us,” he said.

Hoffmire wasn’t the only one to vote against the decision to appoint Combs. Councilmembers Jim Woessner and Bryan Stucky agreed, saying they didn’t have enough information to make the call.

The position was never opened to the public for applications, and the council was unable to weigh in on the process. Like executive appointments in other levels of government, the legislative body must approve the candidate.

Woessner said he likes the idea of promoting from within, and he acknowledged Combs’s competency. Yet he said there is a reason for the council’s role in the decision-making.

“Part of that process is for the council to be that next party, that overseeing party to make sure that we’re doing the best thing for the citizens of Oak Harbor,” he said. “That’s our job every single day, and the reality is I don’t know that I have all the information I need to be able to say that I have overseen this decision and can make that.”

While Combs has great qualities, without an open interview process there is no way to know if she is the best person for the job, Stucky said.

“We have people in our city, working within our city and living in our city who have doctorates in public administration, who have been administrators in other cities, who have decades of experience,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a harm in us waiting two or three months to do a thorough search.”

Later, he added, “doing anything less would be a disservice to the city.”

Combs has a master’s degree in strategic communications and first joined Oak Harbor as the city’s public information officer in 2020. Last year, then-Mayor Bob Severns promoted her to executive services administrator.

“I am incredibly frustrated by the process,” Hoffmire said, “the fact that it was deputy city administrator, well, no, no, no, we can’t do that, it’s interim city administrator, and then we’re here looking at an employment contract but then at (the) open you heard, ‘Well, we’re being asked to confirm it when the position is available.’ What else are we going to find out after the fact? It is not fair to the employee first and foremost. It absolutely isn’t.”

Additionally, Combs’ former and “fallback” position has already been filled, he said.

The other council members didn’t agree. When Police Chief Tony Slowik was approved in December, nobody at the time brought up these concerns about not opening the position up to the public, said Councilmember Eric Marshall.

“I don’t know where this is coming from all of a sudden,” he said. “I really am surprised and quite honestly disappointed that this is the stance we are going to take when we have such an excellent candidate.”

Stucky did suggest doing a full candidate search for the police chief at the time, he said. Further, as the top staff position in the city, the decision requires even more consideration.

Requiring open applications is a policy decision that should be set by council at a different meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Tara Hizon said.

“If we’re willing to promote from within for one position, but for another we say we need more information, that’s arbitrary,” she said. “That’s totally arbitrary from where we sit and I suspect could get us in some hot water.”

Hizon appreciates that Combs is “unconventional,” she said, and Councilmember Christopher Wiegenstein agreed.

“Maybe 30 years of experience isn’t what the city needs,” he said. “We don’t know. Historically in the world we tend to hire people with tons and tons of experience, and we get tons and tons of old ways.”

Skipping the candidate search is cost effective for the city, he said.

After the vote, Woessner, Hoffmire and Stucky each congratulated Combs and noted she is a good candidate for the role.