Oak Harbor city administrator loses job

Oak Harbor Mayor Ronnie Wright terminated the employment of the city administrator last week.

In his second staffing change since coming into office, Oak Harbor Mayor Ronnie Wright terminated the employment of the city administrator last week.

Blaine Oborn was originally hired by former Mayor Bob Severns in July 2018. Until now, Oborn had survived a rocky tenure punctuated by a vote of no confidence by the city council, a lawsuit, staff complaints and an alleged threat by a council member.

A short press release sent Friday afternoon explained that the city “invoked the termination clause” in Oborn’s employment contract. The decision was effective immediately, and Wright will begin a search for a new city administrator.

“I want to thank Blaine Oborn for his service to our city and wish him well in his future endeavors,” Wright said in the press release.

While the termination of Oak Harbor Fire Chief Ray Merrill last month surprised many leaders, Wright’s decision to fire Oborn was more expected by some in the community.

A city administrator works closely with the mayor and is responsible for setting the work culture, which is why it’s common for a new mayor to choose a different person to fill the role. For that reason, the average longevity of the position tends to be shorter than other city positions.

Severns said Monday that it made sense for Wright to change the city administrator.

“I get it. I totally get it,” he said, adding that a mayor needs a city administrator who shares his vision and follows his directions. Severns also said he is impressed by how hard Wright has worked since becoming mayor and expects the city will benefit from his knowledge of finances.

Severns said Oborn was diligent, reliable and, above all, loyal to him. Yet he conceded that he felt compelled to structure Oborn’s employment “a little different than the way he normally operated.”

Oborn has been at the center of controversy several times over the years.

In September 2020, the city’s former public works director, Cathy Rosen, and former city engineer Joe Stowell filed a lawsuit against the city, Oborn and Severns. While the lawsuit was far-ranging in its allegations, it accused Oborn of having sexist attitudes that affected women who worked for the city.

“Oborn treats women employees unequal to their male equivalents,” the lawsuit stated, adding that he “favors female employees who are submissive toward him over the female employees who are assertive and unafraid to disagree with him.”

The city eventually settled with Rosen for $200,000. Stowell settled for $15,000, plus $32,000 in attorneys fees.

In September 2021, the city attorney ended his contract abruptly and the assistant attorney quit, both citing a “compromised working relationship” with Oborn and others in the administration.

In response, members of the city council held an executive session in October 2021 with the two attorneys — but without Oborn or Severns. The council then passed a motion of no confidence in Oborn, citing a long list of grievances. Four council members voted in favor, one abstained and two others were absent. They blamed him for the departure of 89 staff members over a three-year period, low staff morale and an alleged violation of the law by sidelining former Mayor Pro Tem Beth Munns while the mayor was out sick.

Severns, however, defended Oborn in a PowerPoint presentation to the council at a later meeting. He was critical of the council and claimed that the no-confidence motion was misleading and contained inaccuracies. He said many staff members had actually complained about council members.

The following week, the city released the results of a staff survey in which nearly all of the respondents agreed that morale was low, with some describing a culture of fear created by the administration. While most of the blame was leveled at the administration, sometimes Oborn directly, about a fifth of the criticisms were about the council, particularly for the perception that members were rude or meddlesome.

Then in 2022, Munns allegedly told Oborn that he and the HR director would be hit or slapped if they attended the memorial service of a city employee who died unexpectedly. While Munns denied it was a threat, Oborn reported the incident to the police chief, who found no criminal conduct.

But Oborn later told the city council that he felt it as clearly a threat. In a controversial decision, a divided council ended up stripping Munns of the mayor pro tem title by appointing Tara Hizon instead.