Oak Harbor staff survey draws ire, confusion

Oak Harbor City Council members and Mayor were surprised by the Mayor Pro-Tem’s prior announcement.

Oak Harbor Mayor Pro-tem Beth Munns’ Nov. 4 announcement of a staff morale survey caused a kerfuffle among elected city leaders.

During a council meeting this week, one city council member said he was caught by surprise and another asked to correct minutes from the meeting to reflect that some were in the dark.

Moreover, the mayor and a councilman gave differing accounts about whose idea it was.

Mayor Bob Severns read a lengthy statement critical of the announcement.

“I was not aware of the survey and neither was my leadership team,” Severns said.

During the Nov. 4 special city council meeting, Munns said that the city council has “been concerned with all the employees, staff — everybody — with all the things that have gone on this year and how difficult it’s been to get thoughts and communications across,” and that the council was trying to be “a sounding board” for staff through an anonymous survey.

She said the surveys would be distributed to staff with pre-stamped envelopes addressed to City Attorney Grant Weed’s office, then he would read them and report back to the council on their contents.

Apparently, neither the city administration nor the full council knew about or were involved in the creation of the survey.

Councilmember Tara Hizon asked that the Nov. 4 meeting minutes be corrected to accurately reflect that the survey was not discussed by the council.

“She did say ‘we,’ but the council members did not discuss and create the survey,” Hizon said during the Nov. 17 city council meeting.

Severns addressed the survey in a statement for the community.

First, he explained that he was absent during that meeting and had asked Munns to lead it. He also shared that his staff regularly prepares notes for him to read during meetings, and that the survey announcement was not in his notes for Munns to share.

He then referenced a training session the council had with a representative from Washington Cities Insurance Authority that gave the council members an overview of their roles in city government. The training was on Aug. 26 and can be viewed on the city’s YouTube channel.

“The training explained it is the mayor’s role to manage city staff and the city council’s role is a legislative body with authority to determine city policy. In this training, council received an overview of staff morale and management being part of the mayor’s role and not council because the mayor is the chief executive of the city,” he explained.

He said that he had already been working with staff on a process to collect more feedback at the request of Munns, as well as Councilmembers Joel Servatius and Jeffrey Mack. He shared that staff was “holding off” on sending out a survey because of the other priorities, such as finalizing budgets, replacing several directors, and navigating the impact of COVID-19, among other needs.

“I did not want to increase employee workloads toward the end of the year,” he said, adding he did not want to conflict with other communications and surveys that were already in the works.

Severns said he was also concerned about the cost for the city attorney, who contracts with the city, to tabulate the survey results.

Severns claimed that the city has been receiving more feedback from the community and staff after he instituted an annual all-hands meeting and hired a public information officer.

Some of the feedback tools the city is planning, including employee surveys, focus groups, engagement opportunities and communication, will happen in 2021, Severns said.

“These processes will start in 2021 for several reasons, but one key reason is giving our new leaders an opportunity to get settled before we ask employees about their performance,” he said.

He noted that the city had three new hires recently: Development Services Director David Kuhl started in August; Finance Director David Goldman started in October; and Park Operations Manager Jesse Ott started earlier this month.

“It is unfair to solicit feedback from staff until some time has passed and these individuals settle in,” Severns said.

“I appreciate city council’s concerns and I am taking them seriously, but timing and coordination are important. I want to continue the process we are using and then report back to the city council and community of what we are learning from staff,” he continued.

Munns was the first council member to speak after the mayor’s personal statement and used her time to encourage the public to donate to the North Whidbey Help House. She did not say anything about the survey.

Servatius was next to speak and apologized to his peers.

“I apologize to any of my peers with regards to the survey,” Servatius said. “The wording may have said something about ‘the council’ or ‘members of the council.’ It could’ve said ‘some’ members of the council.”

Servatius said that he and Munns created the survey after the mayor instructed them to do so during a meeting that included himself, Munns, Mack and the mayor.

“It was during that meeting that we were instructed to go ahead and do a survey. And so as you’ve all seen, I think it’s a very professional survey. I wish we would’ve done it sooner,” Servatius said, adding that it could have helped the council during the budget process.

Servatius said the rest of the council was not included in the survey’s creation because it would have required to schedule public meetings in order to comply with state law.

“We didn’t want to violate (open public meeting laws) in any way, so Ms. Munns and I took it upon ourselves to put that together,” he said, referencing state public meeting laws.

Councilmember Jim Woessner responded to Servatius’ comments, thanking him for the clarification of the survey’s genesis.

“I had no idea that was coming around the corner,” Woessner said.

He encouraged people to reach out to him or the other council members if they had concerns.

“We certainly want to hear if you think there’s a concern that needs to be addressed by us.”

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