City of Oak Harbor urged to name new fire station after former chief

Merrill advocated for the building for many years and wasn’t planning on retiring until completion.

Public comments have multiplied at each city council meeting with Oak Harbor residents urging the council to name the new fire station after the former fire chief.

The city acquired 1250 SW Swantown Ave. last year for Station 82, Oak Harbor’s second fire station. The project is moving forward with its final design phases, which will need council review. The project is funded by a bond approved by voters last year.

Former Oak Harbor Fire Chief Ray Merrill had advocated for the new building for many years and said he wasn’t planning on retiring until it was completed. But that wasn’t to be, as Oak Harbor’s new mayor, Ronnie Wright, let Merrill go last month.

Wright did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The idea to name the fire station after Merrill first came from Oak Harbor resident Melinda Buchanan on Feb. 12. In a public comment, Buchanan wrote she was “heartbroken” by the news of Merrill’s termination.

Merrill is a strong pillar in Oak Harbor, Buchanan wrote, visiting schools, earning votes for the levy and bond and advocating for increased service and an additional fire station.

“If this doesn’t scream ‘name a station after me’ I don’t know what does!” she wrote.

At this meeting, Councilmember Shane Hoffmire stepped away from the council chair and to the podium as a citizen, feeling that the comment would better come from him as a resident of Oak Harbor.

“As a council member we are all on the same team and I do not question or challenge the authority of the mayor on anything here,” he said. “With that said, 12 years ago I stood at this same podium. There was quite a process we went through in selecting Ray Merrill as our fire chief. I said at that time, and 12 years later I can stand up here and I can say the same thing, I moved here in July of ’99, and not a single day has went by that I haven’t heard a good thing about Ray. As a resident I’m broken hearted that it ended this way, that it didn’t end with the hero parade.”

When council confirmed Chief Tony Slowik as Oak Harbor police chief in December, there were some “grenades,” tossed his way, Hoffmire said. At the meeting, local resident Sandi Peterson claimed the city didn’t hold an interview panel for job candidates and brought up disciplinary action Slowik went through 11 years ago. At this meeting, Merrill was the first person to stick up for Slowik’s character.

“Oak Harbor loves Ray Merrill, and we are very fortunate for the time he gave us,” Hoffmire said, “and I think every single one of us agrees that putting the fire department first and moving forward is No. 1 on our agenda.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, seven more comments about Merrill poured in. One of which, by retired North Whidbey Fire and Rescue Division Chief Jim O’Connor, claimed thousands of Oak Harbor residents shared this sentiment.

“I think the majority of the community feels that he should still be the fire chief,” O’Connor said in an interview. “I feel that a large number of people feel that the new fire station should be named in his honor because if it wasn’t for him, nothing would have ever been done to get a new fire station.”

One of these residents is Cynthia Brooks, a former North Whidbey Fire and Rescue volunteer who served under Merrill.

“I am deeply saddened to learn the new mayor chose to ‘clean house’ and replace Ray,” she wrote.

Merrill understood the city’s growth and acted on it, O’Connor said. Fires double in size every 30 seconds, and with the future housing development near Swantown Avenue, the new station is crucial.

O’Connor has lived in Oak Harbor for over 30 years, he wrote, seeing firsthand Chief Merrill’s etiquette. He said he never turned down a request for help from the public or other departments.

Merrill deserves a public apology from the city, O’Connor wrote. He was offended by a press release referring to Merrill as “Mr. Merrill” as opposed to “Chief.”

“I’ve known Chief Merrill for over 20 years, and I have never once called him anything but Chief Merrill, and everybody I know still calls him Chief Merrill,” he said. “I don’t know anybody that would refer to him as Mr. Merrill. That just shows total ignorance of right protocol and courtesy in the government sector.”

Hoffmire’s feelings were mixed.

“I support the mayor’s right to do their job. That said, I love Ray Merrill like family,” he said in an interview. “I can’t help but think there should have been a better off-ramp. Being the individual that ran against the mayor, it’s tough for me to watch those decisions.”