Suit accuses Oak Harbor mayor, city administrator of unethical conduct

The public works director and a former city engineer have filed a lawsuit against city leaders.

The Oak Harbor public works director and a former city engineer accused the mayor and city administrator of a long list of unethical conduct in a lawsuit filed last week in Island County Superior Court.

Cathy Rosen, the longtime director of the city’s largest department, and former City Engineer Joe Stowell are asking for unspecified damages for retaliation against whistleblowing, violations of laws against a hostile work environment, a violation of public records laws and infliction of emotional distress.

Rosen is also alleging gender discrimination, and Stowell is accusing the mayor of wrongful discharge.

In response to an inquiry from the Whidbey News-Times, city officials released a short statement about the claim.

“The lawsuit is currently under review by the City’s legal counsel and we have no further comment,” it states.

The lawsuit claims that City Administrator Blaine Oborn’s sexist attitudes about women cause him to constantly undermine Rosen’s authority, pressure her to retire and treat her unfairly. His misogyny has affected other women who work for the city, the lawsuit claims, and is the reason the former city finance director found a job elsewhere this summer.

Much of the lawsuit revolves around issues related to the inflated costs of the sewage treatment plant and a press release Mayor Bob Severns sent to the Whidbey News-Times, which blamed the former city administrator, as well as Rosen and Stowell, for allegedly failing to communicate information about the cost increases.

The lawsuit states that Severns rarely attended meetings he was supposed to about the plant and that the staff wasn’t provided with financial tracking software for the project. Nevertheless, the lawsuit claims, Severns was informed about the cost increases.

The lawsuit claims that Severns and the council members held an executive session about “personnel issues” Jan. 31, 2018, without the city attorney present, where they improperly discussed the cost increases and the mayor “scapegoated” the staff.

The lawsuit states that Severns sent the newspaper a press release that was “published” and that it accused Rosen and Stowell of unethical behavior despite evidence to the contrary.

The Whidbey News-Times quoted from the press release in a news story about the cost increase of the project, which jumped from $122 million to more than $140 million. It later increased to $150 million.

The newspaper contacted the public works department at the time but received no response.

The only unethical behavior that the press release identifies is that the staff allegedly failed to communicate the updated cost to the mayor and city council when the information came available.

The lawsuit points out that Severns promised to hire an outside firm to audit the project but never did.

The lawsuit states that Rosen and Stowell “were publicly embarrassed and their credibility and reputations with the general public and other City employees were negatively impacted” as a result of the mayor’s statements and the press release.

According to the lawsuit, Severns created a hostile work environment by constantly threatening to fire Rosen and Stowell and by continuing to publicly disparage them.

The lawsuit claims that the mayor improperly hired Gary Goltz to oversee the project closure at a cost of $125 an hour but that he only hindered the project because he couldn’t understand the basics of how a computer or an iPhone works.

Because of Goltz’s “incompetence,” Rosen was forced to do much of his job for him, including a schedule that he was contracted to create, but she was not compensated at his higher rate of pay, the lawsuit states.

The work environment became so hostile, the lawsuit claims, that Stowell was forced to resign.

“Stowell experienced insurmountable stress and anxiety as a result of the retaliation and hostile work environment created by Severns,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges that the city is “intentionally executing a plan to retaliate and terminate Rosen’s employment or make the work environment so hostile that she will be forced to resign.”

The lawsuit claims Oborn created an adversarial relationship with Rosen since the mayor hired him in August 2018.

The lawsuit describes a meeting in January at which Oborn surprised both Rosen and Steve Powers, who was the development services director, by announcing plans to reorganize their departments.

The proposed plan “did not make sense from a budget perspective or practically,” the lawsuit states and would substantially reduce Rosen’s job duties and responsibilities.

Rosen and others at the meeting expressed their disagreement with the plan in a professional manner during the meeting, the lawsuit states; but afterward, Oborn gave Rosen a written warning that falsely accused her of acting unprofessionally.

Powers went to work for another city after the meeting.”

The court document states that Oborn has used the human resources director as an assistant city administrator even though she doesn’t have the required experience or knowledge; they worked in concert to target Rosen and create a hostile work environment.

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

Oborn has religious or moral beliefs that women should be subservient to men, the lawsuit states.

In addition, the lawsuit accuses the city of breaking state law by failing to produce documents in response to Rosen’s public records request in 2018.