The City of Ocean Shores is vulnerable to a tsunami of bad decisions by politicians.
A tsunami of incompetence in Ocean Shores
By Glen Morgan
Recent reports of a $734,376.50 Federal Court ruling against the City of Ocean Shores, located on the Pacific Coast in Washington State is just the most recent public exposure of major political leadership problems in that city. Of course, it takes more than losing a lone lawsuit for someone to objectively conclude there are serious problems in the City of Ocean Shores. Let’s look at some of these issues which have come to light over the past few years:
- The recent $734,376.50 Court judgment against the City of Ocean Shores (and more specifically this is an explicit repudiation of Mayor Crystal Dingler’s poor choices). This stems from a poorly managed, politically orchestrated, and illegal firing of the City’s Fire Chief after he apparently did the work he was hired to do reducing the historic overtime abuse by the many non-resident firefighters in that department.
- The recent expose of curious and questionable contracts, incestuous business relationships, and legal violations at the Ocean Shores Golf Course (owned by the City).
- A significant squandering of taxpayer funds on a maintenance building which was bid at $850,000, but ended up costing the city $2.4 million.
- Unusual attempts by the Mayor to reduce council oversight or questioning of the city’s financial expenditures (which is highly unusual for any elected body)
These problems appear to be only the tip of the iceberg of what could prove to be some serious misgovernance in the City of Ocean Shores. It is always possible these just represent a pattern of typical incompetence in a small town located off the beaten path and away from the usual attention given by government watchdogs. However, as we have stated many times before – a mountain of corruption is best concealed by an ocean of incompetence. When corruption is uncovered, the first claim made by government bureaucrats and politicians is to suggest they are just incompetent.
Right now, these events invite more scrutiny and citizen involvement to unravel the mess and hopefully prevent future screw ups in local government.
The City of Ocean Shores – a brief history
Perched entirely on a flat, narrow peninsula of land called the Point Brown Peninsula, sandwiched between the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean and the North Bay of Grays Harbor, it is hard to imagine a more appropriate name for this city. The City of Ocean Shores can trace its modern origins back to 1960 when a cattle farmer named Ralph Minard sold his land to the Ocean Shores Development Corporation for $1 million. For a few years in the 1960s, this area became a bustling, growing area of roads, canals, golf course development, celebrity visits (and residents), and it seemed like an inevitable boomtown. The city incorporated in 1970. Then, the wheels fell off the hype wagon, and the area struggled financially for many years.
This was the era when I first remember visiting Ocean Shores as a kid with my grandfather – learning to steer my Grandfather’s Toyota on the beach when I was five years old, trying unsuccessfully to outrun the waves on the beach, and enjoying a bonfire on the beach to the background sound of crashing waves. In the 1980s, I remember driving out to Ocean Shores with my friends, riding horses next to the ocean, and flying kites. In the 1990s I remember attempting to camp illegally on the beach at night, sleeping in the back of my truck, and discovering how terrifying it could be to wake up with the waves far too close for comfort. I wisely moved my “bed” to a safer location in town (yes, there really is a reason they have signs about not camping on the beach overnight). Ocean Shores is truly a magical place, and it has been this way long before the Roanoke Conference helped put this City on the map in 2009. Unfortunately, the magic of the place has not translated into competent political leadership at the city.
Ocean Shores Mayor Crystal Dingler
The City of Ocean Shores has struggled financially on and off over the years. It holds great promise and the natural beauty and location has always promised more. However, for a variety of reasons, it seems major development in Ocean Shores has remained out of reach. To be fair, many locals probably prefer it remain this way. For that matter, many people prefer Ocean Shores as a place to locate a beach cabin or a quiet retirement home rather than a bustling tourist attraction. There is nothing unique about that cultural struggle in any beachfront community, and similar debates have occurred at many other communities in America (and Washington State) for that matter.
The voters elect their political leaders and with a population of about 6,500, local elections can be competitive. Mayor Dingler was first elected as Mayor in 2011 with less than a majority of the vote (see here). This is unusual since Washington State has a jungle primary process, but a write-in candidate helped create that unusual result. Dingler was comfortably reelected in 2015 (see here), but she squeaked by in a very narrow election victory of only three votes in 2019 (see here).
Since most of the recent questionable financial actions and events involve decisions and actions taken by Mayor Crystal Dingler, it is worth reviewing her background. Dingler, according to her bio (here) and guest bio (here) is an alumni of University of Washington with a Law Degree from Seattle University. The fact she passed the Bar in Washington State (WA State Bar #26741) becomes relevant when we review these recent financial problems in the City of Ocean Shores.
Recruiting, hiring and illegally firing the Fire Chief
The most recent scandal of a Federal Court judgement against the City of Ocean Shores has made local news due to the significance of the judgement against the city ($734,376.50) (see final judgement linked here, and related articles linked here, here, and here). However, the relevance of this judgement against the city of Ocean Shores is far more significant than it may at first appear.
Essentially, according to documents from this court case (See case here), the City of Ocean Shores had been struggling with problems of poor management and cost overruns of the city owned fire department – including excessive overtime pay, which was costing a small city like Ocean Shores quite a bit of cash they didn’t have to spare. One of the challenges (not unusual for small towns) is that most of the firefighters resided outside Ocean Shores (and by implication, most of them didn’t care about the excessive costs).
In 2017 the city (Mayor Dingler, in a strong mayor system, filled the roll of city administrator at the time) hired Chief David Bathke as the new Fire Chief tasked with regaining control over the out-of-control costs. From various reports, it seems that Bathke helped reduce these costs substantially, but by trimming the fat from the budget, the local Firefighter union wasn’t happy and had a vote of “no-confidence” in Chief Bathke in early 2019.
Despite the fact that Mayor Dingler is an attorney and has a law degree, she chose to accept the firefighter’s claims of no-confidence in Chief Bathke at face value and she fired Bathke without getting his side of the story or following anything resembling normal due process or basic common sense. This decision put the City of Ocean Shores in serious financial jeopardy as the recent Federal Court judgement confirms.
This type of impulsive behavior and the failure to follow basic employment contracts ensures the City’s insurance company is not liable. Additionally, it appears that all costs of this lawsuit will need to be paid from the city’s general fund. In addition to the judgement, the city’s legal costs of several hundred thousand dollars will total close to a million dollars and certainly will exceed this amount if the city decides to appeal. All this because an attorney politician couldn’t or refused to follow the law.
Many locals felt this precipitous decision was made by Mayor Dingler because she was facing a serious political challenge later that same year, and Dingler wanted to shore up her support with the firefighters. This gamble may have cost the city dearly, but it probably paid off for Dingler’s political career as she received the local unions support (see here) and she squeaked by on a three vote margin later that fall (see election results here).
One issue that appeared to haunt Mayor Dingler in 2019 was the public concerns about her pay from the City. As a Strong Mayor, she essentially had administrative responsibilities at the city, and her annual pay (which had been increased to $48,000 in 2015) made some people feel like she was “double-dipping.” Dingler was forced to propose a reduced pay proposal down to $12,000 and hired a new city manager who reports to her (see related article here)
The Ocean Shores Golf Course and strange dealings
A prime feature of the City of Ocean Shores since the 1960s (and a draw for some of the retirement crowd who live there) is the Ocean Shores Golf Course (see here). The City owns this recreational facility, and it appears to have struggled financially over the years. Since the late 1990s, most of the work managing this operation has been given to a company called Turf Care, which seems to have worked out okay for many years.
However, according to some problems raised by a report filed by Rebound (a labor organization that generally investigates violation of prevailing wage laws, among other labor issues – see their website here), numerous legal violations were occurring at the golf course (see original report sent to Washington State Auditor linked here – note the referenced exhibits are linked at the end of the article). The contractor, Curt Zander who was highlighted in this report was not happy and wrote a pretty strongly worded response to the council (linked here), which in turn prompted a response from Rebound (linked here). Interestingly enough, Mayor Dingler did partially address or deflect this issue in a recent radio appearance linked here (last few minutes).
Essentially, this problem boils down to a convoluted and unusual history between a vendor (Curt Zander/Turf Care) who has operated most aspects of the golf course for the past 20 years without much oversight, transparency, direction and no competition. However, this vendor has claimed that he did everything he could to keep the golf course running and his actions saved the city vast sums of money by essentially trading work on the golf course for the rent he would otherwise pay the city as part of his contract.
In many ways, I sympathize with Mr. Zander because I always appreciate when someone is bending over backwards and doing basic work to keep a facility that may be on the edge of financial solvency alive and in the process maintain an ongoing community asset appreciated by thousands of golfers per year. I’ve done plenty of stories where grants and contracts turn out to be big grant grifting games or cushy contracts for politically connected vendors. I can’t be sure if something like that is happening in Ocean Shores or not, but it looks weird.
The Rebound report certainly raises some legal questions about whether the City of Ocean Shores is violating Washington State law (see report) and it also raises some still unanswered questions about use of funds, lack of real bidding for contracts at this facility, and it does invite financial audits and accounting to make sure the city isn’t sitting on a future financial fiasco or scandal.
This shouldn’t inspire defensive behavior by the mayor or the longtime vendor for that matter, but a proper financial accounting is in order. If the vendor is correct and he has been heroically saving the good taxpayers of Ocean Shores as much money as he claims – he should come out looking like a hero, and the Mayor can take the credit. However, if it turns out to not be so clear cut, and instead full of more legal, financial, and insider dealing landmines, then this won’t be good.
Paying twice the price for half the value
This is the $2.4 million building, originally quoted at $850k – does anyone care?
Another story, and the one that originally caught my attention in Ocean Shores and started me down the path to dig deeper was the Maintenance Building built recently by Ocean Shores. I tend to look at facilities like this all around the state, in part because of my experience digging into Thurston County’s egregious incompetence with the 3400 building (see article here). This maintenance building in Ocean Shores is not as egregious as Thurston County, but wasteful capital expenditures like this always annoy me (and they should be annoying to the taxpayers of Ocean Shores).
Specifically, this was a proposal to build a basic and simple maintenance facility consisting of a relatively small two story office space and a simple garage. Nothing major. The original single source bid was for $850,000 (roughly), but when the city actually built the building, they paid $2.4 million. This always annoys me when I see this type of thing because so often the elected officials and senior bureaucrats don’t treat the taxes of their community with the same concern they would have for their own funds. At best, this was just an incompetent waste of an extra $1.6 million dollars for no additional value at all.
Corruption is easier than you might think
At worst, something else is going on in Ocean Shores with the limited vendor/bureaucrat/politician circle making insider agreements and decisions which might benefit the political players, but are not in the best interest of the taxpayers or residents. The State Auditor rarely looks into Capital Expenditures like this one – particularly when bonded debt is involved. This certainly invites further scrutiny, and there is no reason not to dig deeper.
Ocean kayak deaths and Chamber of Commerce fraud in Ocean Shores
In the early days of 2019, shortly after Mayor Dingler chose to illegally fire the Fire Chief, a fellow councilmember and community leader Jeff Daniels died just off the coast in what was reported as a strange paddleboard surfing accident. Daniels died February 25, 2019, and he had been past president of the Ocean Shores Chamber of Commerce. By all accounts, Daniels was a strong promoter of the City of Ocean Shores (see this video here as an example) and a larger-than-life character who was making a real positive impact in the city. His untimely death was a great loss to many.
Unknown to anyone at the time, but starting sometime in 2018, and continuing until 2019, the former Ocean Shores Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Piper Marie Leslie was stealing funds for herself. According to various reports (see here) at least $11,000 was discovered to be missing later in a fraud investigation. A few months ago Piper Marie Leslie pled guilty in Grays Harbor Superior Court to fraud. This is significant to the City of Ocean Shores because the city had been sending grants to the Chamber without much oversight and verification and it appears now that at least some of these funds were being stolen.
Reducing financial transparency rather than opening up
When a city starts to have financial problems or challenges, the best path forward to solve the problem and restore confidence is to fixing the spending and become as transparent as possible. However, in the City of Ocean Shores, Mayor Dingler seems intent on avoiding this type of scrutiny and instead pushing back on any questions that are being raised by other council members or members of the public. Instead, all these questions become perceived slights, insults, or political persecution.
In theory, the position of Mayor is a nonpartisan position in Ocean Shores. The party affiliation of candidates running for office is not identified on the ballots or in the voter’s guide. Many people prefer this because, in theory, political affiliation should be less important in these local political positions. The voters just want people in local office who they can trust to make competent and capable decisions that put the people’s needs and prioritize the needs of the community the politician represents.
This recent tsunami of negative financial events in the City of Ocean Shores, when added to the past waves of similar problems all raise a lot of red flags. The financial tsunami warning sirens are blaring loudly in Ocean Shores, and some people are wondering just how bad it will become before local political leadership takes it seriously. Meanwhile, the tsunami just keeps coming and eventually nobody can ignore the impact it will have on Ocean Shores.
OUR CONSTITUTION BEGINS WITH THE PHRASE “WE THE PEOPLE.” IT WAS THE FOUNDERS’ INTENT THAT GOVERNMENT BE CREATED BY THE PEOPLE, TO SERVE THE PEOPLE. IT WASN’T THEIR INTENTION FOR THE PEOPLE TO SERVE THE GOVERNMENT. IT WAS ALWAYS INTENDED THAT GOVERNMENT WHICH FAILED TO SERVE THE PEOPLE SHOULD BE “ALTERED OR ABOLISHED.” UNTIL WE RETURN TO THE FOUNDER’S INTENT, WE REMAIN WE THE GOVERNED…
Background articles and documents:
City of Ocean Shores (official website)
Published with Permission of wethegoverned.com