We would start with the first stumble by commissioners of Port of Brookings Harbor — calling for a criminal investigation without bothering to place such a vote on the agenda prior to their meeting. Except the board’s most recent debacle over firing, then attempting to reinstate Port Manager Gary Dehlinger is so egregious it boggles the mind.
Combine the two events and you get the feeling a majority of commissioners need a lesson in transparency and fair play.
Odds are Dehlinger’s unceremonious firing Jan. 5 will turn out to be that lesson, at least for taxpayers who will have to foot the bill for what seems an almost certain lawsuit and hefty settlement. The subsequent do-over by port commissioners — voting just four days later to reinstate Dehlinger and place him on unpaid leave — just about seals that deal.
What the heck is going on? So many questions. So few answers coming from any member of the port board, on advice from their attorney.
Since port commissioners, on advice from their attorney, won’t connect the dots, let’s give it a shot.
First the smoke.
At some point in the last few weeks, Commissioner Jan Barbas discovered what he suspects may be irregularities regarding an emergency Jan. 25, 2016 contract to repair a failing dock. Barbas contends there is no evidence in the board’s minutes, agendas or audio recordings of a vote on the resolution authorizing the work.
The suspect resolution, by the way, was approved under another board — replaced in recent elections by this one — and former Port Manager Ted Fitzgerald.
Stay with us as we navigate this sometimes confusing political maze.
At a Dec. 27 meeting, port commissioners placed a vote on its agenda — without any prior public notice — asking the sheriff and district attorney to investigate the issue. The Pilot promptly filed a written protest with board Attorney James Coffey.
Under state open meetings laws, we said, the public should have been given at least 24 hours notice via a published agenda before port commissioners made such an important decision.
Coffey’s response boils down to this: “(prior...notice) shall also include a list of the principal subjects anticipated to be considered at the meeting, but this requirement shall not limit the ability of a governing body to consider additional subjects.”
Coffey’s legalese may be the letter of the law, but the board’s action flies in the face of the law’s intent — ensuring government transparency. The public’s business must be conducted in public.
But it gets better.
Because port commissioners didn’t bother to seek out the other side, the Pilot did. Both Fitzgerald — the former port manager — and Dehlinger, who prepared the resolution in question while serving as Fitzgerald’s assistant, said proper procedure was followed. Dehlinger produced paperwork from the very records Barbas supposedly so diligently researched to back up their argument.
OK. Now, fast forward to another in a string of hastily called “special meetings.”
Late into the night Jan. 5 — a Friday night — port commissioners emerged from one of their now-routine closed door executive sessions and promptly voted to fire Dehlinger. Without comment and no explanation.
The last act:
Last Tuesday, having had the weekend to reconsider, likely on advice from their attorney, port commissioners emerged from yet another secret meeting and voted to reinstate Dehlinger while placing him on paid leave.
Dehlinger has yet to say if he will accept the offer.
There is no argument about intention here. All members of the port commission serve without pay and do so because they are concerned about the port, one of the jewels of this community. But commissioners have bungled this from the start.
They failed first by giving no prior notice to the public that they intended to vote on such an important issue as asking for a criminal investigation. They made it worse by offering no due process to Dehlinger, a port manager they had spent months praising until the surprise move to summarily dump him.
Dehlinger told the Pilot if he had known the commissioners were considering firing him, he would have asked for a public hearing. He is entitled to that much. It’s called being fair.
Barbas is now all over social media — not talking to the Pilot by the way, on advice from his attorney — saying no one on the port commission has ever said the investigation they called for was criminal in nature.
Here’s a lesson in grade school civics commissioners — when you vote as a public body to ask law enforcement to investigate, that is by definition a criminal investigation.
Board Chair Angi Christian now says commissioners are working on getting Dehlinger a public hearing.
We can hardly wait.
Editorials are the opinion of the Curry Coastal Pilot Editorial Board, consisting of Publisher Kim Fowler, Editor-in-Chief Robin Fornoff and Senior Reporter Jane Stebbins.