More than 75 swimmers, parents and residents packed a meeting Wednesday night wanting to know why the head coach of the North Whidbey Aquatic Club had been terminated from his position this week.
Neil Romney, who was the coach of the Aquajets for 10 years, was abruptly fired. His termination marks the second employee associated with the Aquajets to be fired in recent months. The swimming club, which boast about 100 youth swimmers and about 20 adult “master” swimmers, is a program of the North Whidbey Park and Recreation District, which owns and operates the John Vanderzicht Memorial Pool.
Park district Executive Director Bill Walker sent an email Wednesday morning to club members announcing Romney’s termination. He held a community meeting Wednesday night at the Oak Harbor Senior Center to discuss the next steps of the swim program.
“I know there’s a lot of hurt in this group and I recognize that,” Walker said at the start of the meeting.
Many people who attended wanted to know why Romney was terminated from the coaching position, but Walker and North Whidbey Park and Recreation Commission president Scott Vogt offered few answers, citing the advice of the district’s attorney.
In a Thursday morning interview, however, Romney said his firing was retaliation for questioning the business practices and conduct of Walker.
Romney cited two incidents which drew the ire of the district’s executive director. The first concerned an email he sent to swim club parents concerning the chlorine levels in the pool and how it affected air and water quality, which caused discomfort for the swimmers.
He also questioned how Walker handled allegations of inappropriate behavior by former park district employee. The employee no longer works for the park district and officials took out a petition for an order of protection against that employee to prevent him from entering park facilities.
Romney noted several discrepancies concerning how the employee’s employment ended. Walker said in the petition the employee was fired, but he wrote in emails he provided to the News-Times that the employee resigned.
A Loudermill Hearing, which is held to allow an employee to respond to complaints, took place during a park commission executive session Tuesday night. Romney described the hearing as a “sham.”
He said he was fired for insubordination because he wouldn’t provide Walker access to the swim team’s financial information. He said he was working on getting Walker a password. An email glitch prevented that from being accomplished.
Like Romney, Vikki Robinson, administrative assistant and swim club treasurer, was recently fired from the pool after spending four years working for the district. She said she, too, was fired because of failing to provide access to the swim club’s financials.
She said she never questioned that Walker could have access to the information, but she wanted time to find out if it was legal to give him her password to the database. She questioned how the board organized a committee to revise the district’s bylaws.
In addition, she questioned the legality of an executive session where commission members said they supported Walker’s decision to fire Robinson.
“They supported him and that was a vote,” Robinson said in a Friday interview. Publicly elected boards are required to vote and make decisions in public session.
Walker in an email sent Thursday said the allegations made by Romney and Robinson are false.
“My intent was simply to hold one of the district’s many publicly run and taxpayer-funded programs to account,” Walker said in the email. He said that the park district diverts $130,000 to the operations of the swim team.
He said it isn’t acceptable for the swim team staff to block his access to the financial information. Walker added that it isn’t acceptable for the swim team to have checking accounts containing public money with no accountability to the county auditor.
“My duty is to manage this district and its many programs with full transparency to the taxpayers,” Walker said in the email.
Vogt announced during the Wednesday evening meeting that the board of commissioners are investigating allegations against Walker that arose during the Tuesday evening executive session. That revelation was met with skepticism by the crowd.
Oak Harbor resident Bon Bainco, who has a child participating in the club, suggested an outside investigator should be brought in to examine the allegations.
Other crowd members also questioned whether Walker should be suspended while the commissioners conducted an investigation.
Vogt, however, rejected that recommendation.
“I’m confident enough, as a commissioner, not to interfere with his job,” Vogt said.
People attending the meeting also criticized Walker and Vogt for their lack of transparency in informing the community about Romney.
“You had an opportunity to be open and honest and you didn’t do that,” said Carolyn Pape, who has a daughter participating with the Aquajets.
Fellow parent Annemarie Schroeder said children were hurt by the news of Romney’s termination.
“There were kids in tears today. Please don’t ever do it this way again,” Shroeder said.
Walker has already taken steps to fill Romney’s shoes. Assistant coach Bob Miller was named interim head coach and a recruiting effort is beginning to find a permanent replacement. Miller will serve as interim coach until mid-December.
Katelin Fitzgerald is also helping run the team as well.
The coaches will serve at least through the next meet that takes place in December.
As for Romney and Robinson, they are both talking to attorneys, but they both said they are unsure about how they will proceed.
Residents can again voice their opinion during the next commissioner meeting 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15 at the John Vanderzicht Memorial Pool, 85 SE Jerome St. in Oak Harbor.