In what has become one of the most hotly contested Oak Harbor council races in years, voters will choose between an incumbent with a decade-long incumbency and a relative newcomer to local politics.
Councilmember Joel Servatius, who was first appointed to the position in 2012, has been under siege from challenger Shane Hoffmire as well as established politicians on the island who have accused the incumbent of being beholden to developers.
Servatius, on the other hand, cautions that he won’t back down from confronting the mayor and city administration — unlike his opponent.
Hoffmire did not hesitate to criticize his opponent, claiming that constituents do not feel heard and want change.
“The people of Oak Harbor are crying out for representation and really are desperate for some results,” Hoffmire said.
Servatius said that residents need someone who will ask the tough questions instead of deferring to city leadership.
“What the citizens don’t want is a hand-picked council that shows fealty to the mayor and city administrator. Council serves as a set of checks and balances to the executive portion of our local government,” Servatius wrote in an email.
Hoffmire recently won endorsements from county Commissioner Jill Johnson and Mayor Bob Severns, which was the first the mayor has made in his political career. Severns claimed in his endorsement that voters should choose Hoffmire because he will not be swayed by “outside interests” or real estate developers.
In the past, Servatius has supported developer Scott Thompson, who has two high-profile projects in town. When asked about his support, Servatius said, “I support any kind of infill, anything that will solve our housing problems. It’s not specific to anyone.”
Servatius said his experience has given him institutional knowledge and is a skill that comes with time.
“I have a keen understanding of the city’s budget and programs — something that took years to accumulate, but that allows me to ask very detailed questions when making decisions on behalf of the citizens,” Servatius wrote.
The candidates shared a couple of ideas on how to spend the city’s $6.5 million it was allocated in American Rescue Plan funding. They both agreed that the city should use a portion of the funds to offset utility bills to provide some relief to residents who have seen their bills climb for years.
Servatius also said that the city should use some of its federal funding on “premium pay” for first responders, ensure workers have adequate personal protective equipment, invest in broadband internet framework and address the city’s aging water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure.
Hoffmire focused on utility bill relief but added that some of the money should go toward supporting small businesses. He said providing the relief would also help the city with affordable housing.
“When you look at affordable housing, I think of the city utility bill and how it can and does affect families as well,” he said. “The fact of the matter is we cannot have affordable housing if we don’t stabilize this rate.”
Hoffmire also said the city needs to update its development code, explaining that it needs to update its rules about density bonuses and give a multi-family tax credit.
“There’s so much local government can do to help with affordable housing,” he said.
Hoffmire pointed to the controversial Low Income Housing Institute project to build a large apartment building for working class people and veterans in downtown Oak Harbor. City staff recommended that the city council approve of the project, which they did, but a judge blocked it from going forward after objections from the Oak Harbor Main Street Association.
“I think that shows how serious Oak Harbor needs to re-do its developmental code,” he said.
Servatius said that the city needs to provide incentives that will beckon developers to create more housing inventory.
“The city needs to actively work to attract developers and work with them to help solve the problem,” Servatius wrote. “One of the areas we could benefit from is more multi-family housing.”
Another issue that the city has faced is staff turnover. The issue has been going on for years but recently came to head last month when the city attorney and assistant city attorney resigned on the same day.
City council members issued a vote of no confidence in City Administrator Blaine Oborn last week after they learned 89 employees have left the city since he began working there in 2018. In his defense, Oborn said it was city council members’ actions that were driving employees away.
Both candidates had noticed the exodus trend. Servatius said that he had asked Severns for a list of employees who had left the city after a former city engineer resigned in the spring; he was told to “research it on my own,” he said.
The city council last fall voted to distribute an employee morale survey. It has not come to fruition almost a year later.
“Councilmember Munns and myself tried to do that but were censored by the Mayor and he promised on camera that he would be conducting a survey soon,” Servatius wrote. “No such survey of employee morale has (ever) occurred. It is my hope that Ms. Munns and I will be able to continue our work so that the city employees have a voice.”
Like Oborn, Hoffmire claimed that certain city council members are to blame for fleeing staff.
“The simplest way I had it explained to me by a city staffer was when some of the council members come to city hall, some of the city staff really feels threatened,” Hoffmire said. “Not in a physical manner but in a manner of being challenged in their job, if you will.”
He criticized the council members for asking staff to do things during council meetings without having a formal vote, which can lead to confusion. For example, communications staff created an online survey about the controversial sculpture destined for Windjammer Park, “Angel de la Creatividad,” without a formal vote from council or the arts commission. Many people criticized the survey, including council members.
“I think that’s something council can grab hold of — if council is asking staff to do something, then it should be a majority vote. Not one council member asking staff to do something,” he said.
He said the issue could also be fixed by funneling requests from the council through the city administrator or a department head.
The two also differ on the “Angel de la Creatividad” sculpture. Servatius is full-throated in his support for the art piece. Hoffmire promised he would try to bring it to a public vote before it is installed after backlash online showed that many people do not want it.
Servatius said the choice for voters is clear.
“It boils down to experience, education and integrity,” he said. “I have a 20-plus-year track record of volunteering and community service in Oak Harbor.”
In addition to his tenure on council, Servatius has served as a past president of the Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce, director of the Oak Harbor Main Street Association and a volunteer with Oak Harbor Youth Sailing. He has worked as a financial advisor since 1995 and has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Puget Sound, according to his campaign website.
Hoffmire served as commissioner for the North Whidbey Pool, Park and Recreation District for five years. He has also volunteered with a local Little League, Pony Club and the Washington Trails Association. He has worked in the construction industry for 20 years, according to his campaign website.
“The reason how I chose who I’m running against is (that) I looked at how I can make a difference. I’m running against a councilor with a decade-long incumbency,” he said. “I feel like the results aren’t really there. It’s nothing personal. It’s simply based on the work he has done as a council member.”
Election day is Nov. 2.