Survey: Oak Harbor’s city staff reveals depth of morale issues

Some employees said the work environment was toxic or described a culture of fear.

By Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News Times

Nearly all of Oak Harbor’s employees who responded to the mayor’s call for comments agreed that morale is low, with some characterizing the work environment as toxic or describing a culture of fear.

Last week, Mayor Bob Severns gave a PowerPoint presentation in which he defended City Administrator Blaine Oborn against the city council’s vote of no confidence and announced that he would survey staff about morale. He suggested that the city council, and not the administration, was at the heart of the morale problems.

The results may not have been what he expected. The majority of the 47 employees who responded by the Wednesday council workshop pointed directly or indirectly to city administration as the cause of their concerns.

“It’s hard to come in and watch my co-workers so paralyzed by anxiety and stress about coming to work in such a toxic environment that it physically hurts me,” one employee wrote.

Some employees expressed anger at Oborn and Human Resources Director Emma House.

“The term ‘witch hunt’ comes to mind,” an employee wrote. “Seeing them going after employees with so much enthusiasm is disturbing and causes distrust and negativity.”

Yet council members weren’t unscathed. About a fifth of the comments leveled blame at the council, particularly for the perception that members are rude or meddlesome.

“I hear comments that are disrespectful and belittling of staff and our work, as well as comments that show a council member did not take the time to thoroughly read the information provided in advance,” an employee wrote.

“Council can listen more and talk less,” another wrote.

Severns presented all of the staff comments for the public to read during a presentation Wednesday. He received comments from email, an anonymous comment box and the regular mail. He acknowledged that some of the staff took “direct shots” at him and the council.

“That’s a good thing. We need to hear those,” he said, urging staff to continue to send comments.

Councilmember Jim Woessner said that several words or themes were repeated throughout the comments. The most common was a lack of communication within the city, he noted, but many staff members also had concerns about understaffing, a lack of cost-of-living salary increases and few advancement opportunities.

More alarming, he said, were comments about retaliation, lack of trust, lack of confidentiality and fear. About 20% of employees who commented wrote that staff fears retaliation, particularly from the city administrator and Human Resources director.

“Some of this is stuff that should keep us awake at night,” Woessner said, challenging the mayor to launch an investigation into these allegations.

Staff named Mayor Pro Tem Beth Munns and Councilmember Joel Servatius in a few of the complaints.

“Munns drops in offices all over the city all the time wasting our time to tell us how great and important she is,” a staff member wrote, adding that the staff member feared retaliation from her if they asked her to leave.

Ironically, Munns and Servatius have also been the most vocal in their concerns about staff morale.

At the workshop, Servatius addressed the mayor, saying he came to him more than two years ago with many of these same concerns but was dismissed. He said he saw Severns pound his fist and yell at people presenting him with this information.

“So here we are, we have arrived at this point,” he said, “and I gotta be honest, I’ll be curious to see how you react because I’ve watched you react incredibly viscerally when presented with this information — with plenty of witnesses.”

The council passed a motion of no confidence in Oborn at the Oct. 5 meeting. After a lengthy executive session, the council presented a list of grievances, including blaming him for the departures of 89 staff members since he was hired three years ago.

Both Oborn and Severns have said the council’s allegations were baseless and unfair.

Several staff members addressed the perceived exodus of city employees in their comments.

“Not all employees have left due to administration but I do know a few that have left due to that and problems with their supervisors,” an employee wrote, adding that some departing employees were brutally honest in their exit interviews and questioned if city leaders were aware of them.

“Remember. People don’t quit jobs. They quit bosses,” another staff member wrote.

In addition to fearing retaliation, some employees claimed that their concerns were simply ignored or that they were blamed for being negative.

“It is disheartening to see administration ignore the evidence set forth of staff’s dissatisfaction with administration,” an employee wrote.

Some employees expressed satisfaction with their jobs. Some said the problem was a negative attitude among fellow staff members. Several wrote that their departments were great places to work, though they had concerns with city leadership outside of those departments.

Councilmember Tara Hizon suggested it might be time to consider a different form of city government.

In his comments, Severns said he hopes to work with the council to take immediate action wherever possible, such as implementing cost-of-living increases and improving communications. He said the council should have a retreat in early 2022 to consider the issues in more depth.

This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.

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