Council approves formation of CARES selection panel

More than two dozen North Whidbey businesses have already applied for grants through a program funded by the federal government and co-managed by the city of Oak Harbor and Island County.

According to City Administrator Blaine Oborn, as of Thursday afternoon, 25 businesses applied for funding through the North Whidbey Island Small Business Relief Fund program.

The program was set up by the city and county with funding received through the CARES Act, a federal relief fund meant to help American workers, families and businesses weather the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The North Whidbey relief program has been in the works for several weeks and some aspects are still in development.

Oak Harbor City Council approved a resolution Wednesday to create the CARES Grant Selection Committee, a panel that will determine which businesses are to receive funding. Members of the committee will be appointed by Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson and Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns.

After the selection committee approves applications, city council members will then vote on whether to approve the proposed grants.

There were some concerns raised during the meeting, in part because the resolution states that individuals in office or running for office are not allowed to serve on the selection committee, and some of the committee meetings will be held behind closed doors.

The rule comes from the county and is meant to ensure fairness and prohibit the selection committee members from having a conflict of interest when distributing the funds, Oborn said.

“Somebody could look at campaign contributions and correlate that with the grant,” Oborn explained.

Councilwoman Tara Hizon said she agrees with Island County in that the selection committee should be independent.

“I do think the appearance of fairness is going to be really, really important with the distribution of funds,” she said.

Mayor pro tem Beth Munns said that not having a council member on the selection committee is contrary to how the city normally conducts business.

“We’ve always had someone from council at least part of the committee,” Munns said.

“Just so that when it comes up for vote on our agenda you have someone that has been there that knows the history and can give some background,” Munns said.

Councilman Jim Woessner said he was concerned because city council approves the grants after the selection committee has already selected and pre-approved applications.

“I think the concern is that we don’t have control over some of this,” Woessner said.

“And yet it is something that becomes part of our responsibility and there is an element of fairness that comes into this, and without oversight of the people who are ultimately responsible, which is us, we get a little antsy,” he said.

Woessner proposed having an Oak Harbor council member attend the committee meetings but not influencing the selection process.

Servatius said he shared Woessner’s and Munns’ concerns.

“I think it would be appropriate because we’re tasked with overseeing finances that someone is at least in the room, but I don’t think it would be appropriate if they weighed in,” Servatius said.

Oborn said he would approach Johnson with the council’s recommendations.

Oborn said he expects the committee’s members to be selected by the end of this month.

• Businesses that want to apply for CARES funding can find the application online at www.oakharbor.org/community/page/cares-grant-funding. The deadline to apply is June 23.

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