Council passes motion of no confidence in city administrator

The council passed a motion with a long list of grievances against City Administrator Blaine Oborn.

Oak Harbor City Council members issued a vote of no confidence in the city administrator after a lengthy executive session Tuesday night that excluded the mayor and the interim city attorney but included two former attorneys.

The council passed a motion with a long list of grievances against City Administrator Blaine Oborn, including blaming him for the departures of 89 staff members since he was hired three years ago and violating the law by sidelining Mayor Pro Tem Beth Munns while the mayor was out sick.

Oborn and Mayor Bob Severns, however, answered the council’s allegations in letters to the Whidbey News-Times on Thursday. Oborn suggested that the council members’ real motives were more retaliatory because he followed the law instead of favoring a specific developer and didn’t rush to install a controversial sculpture.

Munns read the council members’ lengthy motion following two hours behind closed doors. Grant Weed, the former city attorney, and Anna Thompson, former assistant city attorney, joined the council. Usually the mayor, city administrator and city attorney are included in executive sessions.

The two attorneys resigned last month on the same day because of a “compromised working relationship” with Oborn and Human Resources Director Emma House.

Councilmembers Munns, Joel Servatius, Jeffrey Mack and Erica Wasinger voted in favor of the motion. Councilmember Tara Hizon abstained and explained that she thought “it would do more harm than good” to vote, although she shared the similar concerns. Councilmembers Millie Goebel and Jim Woessner were absent.

Councilmember Servatius had previously asked for the unusual executive session to be added to this week’s meeting agenda to talk with Weed about the attorney’s resignation.

Employee turnover was the council’s first concern.

“While not all separations from employment may be attributed to Oborn, the numbers represent about 65% of the entire workforce of the city of Oak Harbor,” Munns read as part of the motion. “Such a mass exodus is alarming and unprecedented and demonstrates a serious retention concern, gross negligence and mismanagement of the city’s human resources.”

Oborn was hired by the mayor in July 2018 with a base salary of $148,104.

Eighty-nine staff members have left the city since August 2018, according to documents obtained through a public records request.

In response to a News-Times inquiry, Oak Harbor Fire Chief Ray Merrill said that losing 17 people was unfortunate but not uncommon. Some were members of the Navy and moved, and others found jobs elsewhere.

Twelve of those who left were police officers and eight of these chose to leave this year. Oak Harbor Police Chief Keven Dresker said officers retired, changed careers or moved because of family situations. He did not believe the separations were related to concerns council members discussed.

The remaining 45 former staff on the list came from various city departments.

Still, it is clear that the city has faced high turnover in recent years. Directors from seven city departments have changed since late 2019.

Both Oborn and Severns were named in a lawsuit by former Public Works Director Cathy Rosen and former City Engineer Joe Stowell for allegedly creating a hostile work environment. In the lawsuit, Rosen accused Oborn of having sexist attitudes and being biased against women who stand up for themselves. She claimed that other female administrators left the city because of this.

In the motion, the council claimed that Oborn took actions to remove Munns from a decision-making role.

“While the mayor was incapacitated Mr. Oborn announced to the department directors that he was acting with and had the full authority of the mayor,” the motion states. “Such an announcement is inconsistent with and in contrary to the authority of the Mayor Pro Tem under state law who has authority to act in the absence or incapacity of the mayor.”

The council said last fall that they would do an employee morale survey but it has yet to come to fruition.

The council’s motion claimed that several employees have contacted council members to voice “grave concerns about workplace issues” because they were not comfortable talking with Oborn or House, and they feared retaliation. The motion also claimed that the Oborn has been negligent in communicating with the council.

“Key information which is essential for informed decision making has been omitted, withheld or mischaracterized,” Munns read.

It listed two examples. One was Oborn’s authorization of a traffic study at the city’s future 75-acre park without council’s approval; the motion alleged that Oborn forced a city engineer to take the blame for it in public. The other example was that Oborn directed the interim public works director to tell his staff to report any communications with council members; the council said that was “inappropriate and unnecessary” and damaged morale.

The motion also alleged that Oborn was an ineffective leader, tried to control the Arts Commission meetings, could not answer questions during council meetings and generally has failed in his duties as city administrator.

In a statement sent to the News-Times, Oborn claimed that the allegations were not based on facts, none of the items in the council’s motion were specific complaints and it was the council members’ actions — and not his — that were pushing away staff.

“It is events like this that directly add to the number of employees departing from the city,” Oborn wrote. “City Council is not always civil in their engagement with our staff, and I have received complaints regarding this in the past.”

He defended his leadership abilities by pointing to his 35 years of experience and master’s degree in public policy and administration. He suggested the motion was purely political.

“My initial review of the allegations is that they are not fact based and are created to re-direct the community’s attention from issues that are created by some Councilmembers direct involvement with a local developer and my instruction to staff to follow guidelines and procedures equitably for all projects,” Oborn wrote. “Or, to take the time to fully evaluate and engage with the community about art installations that are being rushed into place ahead of art projects that are sitting in storage at our Public Works facility for years.”

Severns made similar allegations earlier this month about council members’ involvement with real estate developers in his endorsement of Shane Hoffmire over Servatius in the upcoming election.

In his own statement about employee turnover and the vote of no confidence, Severns was also critical of council members. He wrote that the vote of no confidence was “unfortunate” and said he hoped that he and the city council could work together “more cooperatively.”

He also gave more details on the list of 89 former employees. Two were former city council members. Two other employees gave their resignations before Oborn was hired, the mayor wrote, and seven employees left because they chose to retire. He noted that some of the former employees were paid-on-call firefighters or seasonal laborers, claiming that the roles are typically short-term positions. And nine people moved out of the area, he said.

Severns explained that he was not surprised so many people had left because of the high cost of living on Whidbey.

“Living on an island brings many wonderful opportunities for our community members. Unfortunately, it also provides some challenges for our local work force and recruiting or retaining staff,” he wrote.

He praised the city’s recruiting efforts and said that “Great Resignation” is affecting communities everywhere. However, he too was concerned about employee morale in light of the wave of resignations.

“Due to COVID, staffing changes, City Council comments about staff, and employees’ choices to leave the City, I am concerned about employee morale,” he explained.

Oborn criticized the city council for their motion because it detracted from the work of staff. He also noted that council members rarely comment during his workshop presentations and offered to meet individually with them to talk about city priorities.

“I am willing to work with them and it is my hope that they would have brought specific concerns to the Mayor for him to address with me before attacking me publicly and creating a distraction for the hard-working staff at the City of Oak Harbor,” he wrote.