Mayor defends city administrator against vote of no confidence

Severns responded point by point to the council’s lengthy motion of no confidence in Blaine Oborn.

Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns defended the city administrator in a PowerPoint presentation to city council during the regular meeting Tuesday night.

Severns responded point by point to the council’s lengthy Oct. 5 motion of no confidence in City Administrator Blaine Oborn, which passed with four council members voting in favor and one abstaining. Two others were absent.

The mayor also announced an Oct. 27 council workshop to more fully discuss staff morale, which was one of the subjects of council concern. The council had blamed Oborn’s mismanagement for causing staff unhappiness.

“I find this complaint interesting because I have heard similar complaints about city council from supervisors and staff,” Severns said, adding that the administration will survey employees about their concerns and experiences prior to the workshop.

In response to Severn’s presentation, council members focused on perceived communication problems in the city administration and the issue of whether it’s proper for council members to communicate directly with city staff.

Councilmember Jim Woessner was absent from the no-confidence motion and said he would not have voted in favor because he felt it was counterproductive. Still, he discussed his concern with city communication, which he said is “the crux of the issue.” He gave an example about how he made it very clear that holding a picnic for staff was very important to him, but nobody told him that it happened until afterward.

Woessner said it’s vital for council members to be able to communicate with city staff.

“If the administration feels otherwise, that needs to be communicated with us,” he said.

Likewise, Councilmember Erica Wasinger said she just learned about staff’s proposal to change a park entrance from Facebook instead of city administration. Also, she said she has regularly talked to staff outside of meetings during her time on council and the members of administration should have made it very clear if they felt that was inappropriate or made staff uncomfortable.

Severns was unflinching in his support of Oborn and didn’t hesitate to criticize the city council, saying their lengthy motion was misleading and contained inaccuracies. He faulted council members for their “word choices” when talking to city staff.

“Civil discourse between city council and staff is a way to avoid these types of interactions,” he said, referencing the city engineer feeling he was unfairly blamed for a decision made by Oborn.

In response to the council’s claim that Oborn’s leadership led to an exodus of staff, Severns went through the various reasons 89 people have left since the city administrator started Aug. 16, 2018. He said 32 were temporary employees to begin with, seven people retired, nine moved out of state and others left for higher pay or other normal reasons.

Severns said that he has heard staff complain about the city council and received several notes in his comment box.

In an interview after the meeting, Severns confirmed that staff members have complained about feeling pressured by council members who approached them on behalf of special interests. He said he didn’t want to name council members, but he did say one of the anonymous notes left in his comment box referenced Mayor Pro Tem Beth Munns’ actions. The entire council was notified of the concern, he said.

“I think this is a larger topic that we should be working on together rather than pointing fingers,” he said at the meeting.

Severns told the council that the allegation Oborn is negligent in communicating with the city staff is unfair, pointing out that he gives regular city administrator reports and invited council members to discuss city business with the administration.

The mayor said Oborn did not instruct the interim public works director to send an email telling staff to report any interactions with the city council, as the council alleged. He said the interim public works director sent the email on his own accord because he wanted staff members to be prepared to present information and also to avoid serial meetings.

Discussions or even emails about city business with a majority of city council members, even if individually, would constitute a serial meeting and violate law; this would apply to the mayor or city administrator meeting or communicating with council members, other staff communicating with council members or council members communicating with each other. As Municipal Research and Service Center points out, one of the main purposes for public meetings is for the public to hear discussions.

Moreover, Severns said the administration wants to ensure staff members aren’t unduly bothered by council members. He said employees are busy and shouldn’t have to worry about who might invade their workspace.

“Staff should only have to report to their supervisors,” he said.

Municipal Research and Service Center’s “Mayor and Councilmember Handbook” explains that the mayor and city administrator are responsible for managing staff and can regulate council access to employees.

“On the issue of communication between the council and city officers and employees, the mayor or city manager may not prevent council members from gaining information, although they could reasonably regulate the process by which requests or questions are made,” it states.

“If council member inquiries of city employees are interpreted as harassing or unreasonable and may take them away from their duties, it may be necessary for the mayor or city manager to require those inquiries to be channeled through the mayor’s or a department head’s office, if that can be done without unduly encumbering council access to information.”

The council had criticized Oborn for poor leadership and offered the example of Oborn thwarting the employee morale survey that the council wanted. Severns, however, claimed it was inappropriate for Munns and Councilmember Joel Servatius to propose the survey without first talking to him or other council members. He said the administration put the kibosh on the survey at the advice of the former city attorney, who said the value of anonymous surveys is questionable.

Instead, he said, the staff is investigating a different way of doing a survey, though it’s been nearly a year since the council called for one and nothing has been done in the meantime.

In reference to the city attorney and assistant city attorney quitting, Severns noted that council members didn’t present any additional reasons for their departures despite the fact that they spent two hours with them in an executive session that excluded Severns and Oborn. The city attorney had cited a “compromised” working relationship with Oborn and the human resources director without specifics.

Severns challenged the council’s contention that Oborn usurped the authority of Munns, the mayor pro tem, while the mayor was incapacitated. Under state law, a mayor pro tem — and not the city administrator — takes over the mayor’s duties when a mayor is unable to work.

Yet the mayor said he wasn’t incapacitated, though he suffered a broken femur in a fall and experienced other medical complications. While he asked Munns to run city meetings, he said he continued his other duties as mayor.

In the end, Severns said the council didn’t make a clear case for not having confidence in Oborn.

“I am seeing that these types of action by the city council as part of the reason that the staff and community have low morale or fear of losing their jobs,” he said. “I will move on and move forward. It is my hope that city council will do so with me.”

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