An attempt to strip Oak Harbor’s mayor pro tem of her title over an alleged threat against city employees was delayed this week by council members.
The episode appeared to have reopened a rift between the city administration and some members of the city council that loomed large over last year’s election.
The incident that spurred the current controversy occurred on June 8. Mayor Pro Tem Beth Munns allegedly told City Manager Blaine Oborn that he and Human Resources Director Emma House would be hit or slapped if they attended the memorial service of a city employee who died unexpectedly, according to several city officials.
Then apparently in response to hearing Oborn was upset, Munns sent a letter to him on June 22 in which she wrote that she regrets her “confidential conversation” was taken as a threat. She explained that she had spent many sleepless nights after hearing of the staff member’s passing.
“I’m sorry my choice of words were taken as a personal threat to you,” she wrote to Oborn. “For that, I am very sorry and want to apologize to you. I meant no harm to you or anyone.”
On Friday, June 24, Mayor Bob Severns announced a special session would take place on the following Monday for a “periodic review” of the mayor pro tem position by the city council. A mayor pro tem is chosen by the council to act as the mayor when the mayor isn’t available. The council members first named Munns, the long-serving member of the council, as the mayor pro tem in 2018.
In a statement Thursday, Severns wrote that he was shocked by the “recent incident” involving Munns, though he didn’t say what the incident was.
“In honesty, I thought we had come to an understanding as a city council about how we can and should conduct ourselves appropriately when interacting with staff because of past complaints for which training was provided to city council,” he said.
In a staff survey last fall, some staff members complained about council members overstepping their roles or being rude in contacting staff, though many more described their grievances with a city administration that they felt created a culture of fear. The administration also stressed to the council that they are a legislative body and have no authority to manage staff.
Severns explained that he scheduled the special meeting for Monday because he did not want the community to remain in the dark or for rumors to spread about what had occurred. Moreover, he said council members had expressed their concerns with Munns’ actions and he wanted to give her an opportunity to speak to it.
Munns was aware of the complaint and the potential special meeting, he said.
In what Severns characterized as an unintentional oversight, the special meeting wasn’t properly noticed, so it was cancelled and the issue was added to the Wednesday afternoon council workshop meeting.
Several people in the community, however, expressed concerns about the timing of the meetings since Munns is on vacation and has been for much of the month.
Munns appeared at the meeting virtually from her vacation Wednesday, but she had technological problems at the beginning of the meeting. Several council members said they didn’t want to move forward with the discussion when Munns couldn’t be heard clearly.
“I think that this is ridiculous that we would do this while she is out of town,” Councilmember Dan Evans said. “I’m embarrassed to be a part of it.”
Evans made a motion to remove the item from the agenda until after Munns returns from vacation.
An odd conversation followed in which council members speculated obliquely about what details they may or may not know about the allegations without speaking of what the allegations are.
Councilmember Shane Hoffmire pointed out that the issue was serious enough for the administration to hold a special meeting to discuss it. He said he wasn’t comfortable striking it without knowing all the details of what occurred.
Councilmember Bryan Stucky asked if there were details that the council members don’t know which make the issue urgent, but he didn’t say what they do know.
“I don’t know that we know what we don’t know, so that’s the problem,” Councilmember Jim Woessner said, adding that he would like to hear from the mayor about what happened before making a decision about tabling the issue.
But in the end, the council voted to strike the items from the agenda but to allow audience members to speak.
Joel Servatius, former council member, read from an email that Stucky wrote in which he referenced speaking to multiple council members on multiple occasions about his concerns over the Munns incident.
Under the state Open Public Meetings Act, a council member isn’t allowed to speak to multiple council members about an issue outside a meeting — whether by phone, email or text — if it creates a serial quorum.
Resident Hal Hovey said it was suspicious that a meeting for a Monday would be set on a Friday afternoon, adding that it appeared to members of the public that someone was trying to sneak a meeting by them.
“This smacks of cronyism or incompetence,” he said. “I’m hoping it was incompetence, but it makes the city look very, very bad.”
The schism between the city administration and council first came to light publicly last September when Severns took the unusual step of endorsing candidates Hoffmire and Fe Mischo over Servatius and Evans, citing his concern about the influence of developers on candidates.
Not long afterward, the council passed a motion of no confidence in Oborn with a long list of grievances, including his alleged role in the departures of 89 staff members and his alleged violation of the law by sidelining Munns while the mayor was out sick. A few weeks later, the staff survey revealed widespread dissatisfaction, with Oborn, House, Severns, Munns and Servatius being named specifically.
The dynamics of the relationship between the administration and council appeared to change as a result of the election, with the three new council members winning seats, followed by the appointment of a new council member.
Several officials said they didn’t know why Munns felt she should warn the city manager and HR director not to attend the staff member’s memorial service. Munns did not return requests for comment.