Executive Interview with Blaine Oborn

Blaine ObornWhat initially prompted you to get involved with local government?

As a child, my goal was to be a schoolteacher. Given my shyness and abilities in math, I gravitated towards accounting. While pursuing my bachelor’s degree in accounting, my problem-solving and customer service skills were recognized by management at a retail store. There, I met a coworker and mentor who led me to work in an internship in accounting at McClellan Air Force Base in 1986. I obtained a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 1988 from California State University, Sacramento. From there, in 1989, I progressed to employment at the State of California as a fiscal analyst. While working for the State of California, another mentor encouraged my pursuit of a master’s degree. I redirected my efforts from accounting and instead pursued a master’s degree in public policy and administration.

After obtaining my master’s degree from California State University, Sacramento in 2001, I felt that local government would provide the best opportunity for utilizing my education and permit growth in my career as a public sector employee. Thus, I started my 38-year career, working in Federal government for three years and moving to State government for 13 years. I started working in local government in 2002, beginning in California and moving on to West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington. I now have over 22 years of experience in local government, which is the most challenging yet most rewarding of the public sector positions I have held.

Why did you want to become a city manager?

I became a City Administrator 19 years ago for the City of Ronceverte, West Virginia. At that time, I appreciated the opportunity to make a career change from accounting to become a local government leader. Ronceverte was such a positive learning opportunity that instead of working there for the expected two to three years as planned, I worked there for just over four years. Ten years after moving on, the Mayor of Ronceverte contacted me and informed me that the sewer treatment project I had started had now been completed. This is a great example of how the city benefited, after I left, from an initiative that I started.
I became a city manager to make positive contributions to the local communities that I have served, develop public policy initiatives, and create strong relationships with communities, city staff, and legislators such as City Councilmembers. I know that I have achieved these goals throughout the years I have served in city administrator/manager roles.

What was the most important part about your job as a City Manager?

The most important part of my job as a local government leader is to improve the livability of the community where I have been privileged to serve in a leadership role in an honest, forthright, and ethical way. To do so, I have had to confront and challenge poor and potentially unlawful decision-making in each city I was employed in. At Angels Camp, California I discovered embezzlement by the contracted payroll firm. At the City of Ronceverte, West Virginia I had to take receivership of the independent Fire Department because of fraud. At the Village of Kronenwetter, Wisconsin I had to end the contract of the consultant engineer due to rampant billing for unneeded project designs that distressed Village tax incremental financing districts. At Rhinelander, Wisconsin I immediately discovered that the City had been inadvertently deficit spending for the last three years before I arrived. At Lake Geneva, Wisconsin I had to hold the City Engineer accountable by stopping unauthorized projects and uncompetitive contracting.

My most recent employment at the City of Oak Harbor, Washington was the most challenging, with a large 10-year sewer project slated to end just after I started. I became aware almost instantly that it was excessively over budget. Additionally, in Public Works–the department involved–an employment lawsuit was threatened and ultimately initiated by the Public Works Director and a former employee soon after I arrived. These issues became intertwined at times. The Public Works Director, who was in and out of the press and in pre-litigation claims, made numerous false claims to generate favorable press and possibly deflect from her own responsibility and accountability for this large project overage. Not surprisingly, both those actions generated a hailstorm of press coverage including, most prominently, the City’s sole newspaper. This inexorably led to small-town politics that generated unwarranted negative attention focused on the City Administrator role (mine), the former Mayor, and others in key leadership as well.

These false claims and the challenging political environment ultimately led to the election of a new Mayor in the Fall of 2023. Within only about a month of his swearing-in, he initiated actions to justify my dismissal in February 2024. Prior to his election, and prior to my hire, the sewer project had been forecasted to cost $68 million. Upon its completion in 2018, when I had just arrived, that figure had ballooned to $150 million. During the closing audit that I led, I discovered that the Public Works Director, the plaintiff in the pending claim and eventual litigation, had moved millions of dollars of unauthorized funds. Essentially, the approximately $117 million construction contract was reflected in only two change orders that were approved by the City Council. In 2021, the City Council chose to keep this matter from public scrutiny and instead settled any potential dispute with the contractor for around $120,000 instead of working to claw back around $2 million in unjustified expenses/cost overruns as I recommended. Some of these Councilmembers collaborated with the then Public Works Director to discredit me and raise concerns about my management in the local press because of my vocal concerns about their conduct.

The litigation brought by the Public Works Director continued over many years and was resolved in 2023. The new Public Works Director estimates that the sewer project could have been completed for around $50 million. Unfortunately, I came to Oak Harbor at the end of the project and could only attempt to reduce the $100 million debt burden to the City’s sewer customers. I hope the City will continue these efforts even though I have been removed from my role and cannot see this project through to completion. On the positive side, having experienced how a large infrastructure project can be mishandled, I am ready to take on a similar project, with the accountability of both staff and contractors, for the betterment of the community in another setting.

Which City project are you most proud of during your years as a City Manager?

I am proud of four voter referendums approved primarily during my tenure at Oak Harbor, Washington. Specifically, Oak Harbor voters approved a local transportation sales tax, a second fire station bond that required a supermajority, and an increased fire staffing levy. The fourth referendum was in Rhinelander, Wisconsin where voters approved a tourist sales tax. Each of these initiatives provided additional revenue sources to sustain and ensure continuing financial support to these two communities.

What are the greatest challenges facing City Managers in Washington State today?

As indicated above, I appreciate and have welcomed the opportunity to work with community leaders committed to bettering the community in my local government career. However, pursuing integrity, fiscal accountability, and good management of public employees and public funds in the face of resistance, poor performance, and other obstacles stemming from the practices of others has been a consistent challenge in my career. I have drawn strength through my association with diverse competent and ethical staff and leaders who value integrity and innovation. I relate to the quote by actor Denzel Washington that states, “Some people will never like you because your spirit irritates their demons.”
I have made kindness a goal in my interactions with the public and within local government. I was recently told that I am too kind. From my experience and perspective, I know that a great leader can never be too kind. My practice has always been to be service-oriented. I have worked quietly in my career, subscribing to what Dr. Scott Andrews, ICMA-CM, shared in a LinkedIn post: “Work for a cause, not for applause. Live life to express, not to impress. Don’t strive to make your presence noticed, just make your absence felt.”

What is your favorite way/place to interact with the residents of your City?

While interacting with a resident early in my local government career, I was complimented for knowing the community’s history better than most longtime residents. My favorite place to interact with residents is in one-on-one meetings to address their individual concerns. Yet, I also appreciate the opportunity to provide reports to civic organizations and gather with larger groups to educate the public about City issues on upcoming referendums and other initiatives through community presentations.

What is the role of a City Manager in upholding the public’s trust in local government?

As one of the most visible, if not the most visible, faces of City government outside of the electoral process, I believe it is vital to be transparent, available, and accountable and avoid, wherever possible, getting enmeshed in partisan bickering and infighting on key issues for the community. I am honored by the acknowledgments of trust by two local government leaders as follows:

Former Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns recently stated, “If [Blaine Oborn] was challenged, he always demonstrated a high standard of professionalism. He always behaved ethically and demonstrated integrity, even while under leadership pressure. If your position requires a gentle leader who is honest, dependable, trustworthy, and knows how to act under pressure then you should consider Blaine Oborn.”

Current Oak Harbor City Councilmember Shane Hoffmire also recently stated, “I know that Blaine [Oborn] was a wonderful Oak Harbor City Administrator with many accomplishments that really improved the City of Oak Harbor, including voter approval of three referendums. With his strong financial leadership, the City was able to reduce the City’s sewer rate and will likely obtain a reduction in debt interest for added reduction. Other accomplishments include the creation of a Parks & Recreation Department to better serve the community with added recreation programs, impressive legislative outreach, the City receiving millions of dollars in grants, improved employee morale, building a collaborative work environment, and leading the staff effort to provide relevant information to decision-makers. Blaine faced local political challenges as many administrators do, but continued to demonstrate professionalism, ethical behavior, and integrity. As a former Mayoral candidate in 2023, my plan was to move forward with Blaine’s leadership if elected Mayor. The City has the greatest staff I’ve ever seen, surely the administrator should get credit for this fact. Oak Harbor’s loss could be another organization’s gain as a highly skilled and kind seasoned leader is ready to make a positive difference.”

How are cities shaping the future of Washington State?

Whether large or small, cities are at the heart of addressing the issues facing the State as a whole and can be the most adept at pursuing solutions. I have been able to address local road and fire response issues with referendum solutions that resonated with the voters. I implore States and the Federal government to engage with local government through legislation and revenue that will enable local governments to have the ability to lead.

When you’re not busy working, how do you like to spend your time? What hobbies do you have?

I subscribe to my wife Tamra’s saying. When asked what our favorite place is that we have lived in, she always replies, “It is where we now live.” We have been able to take advantage of the beauty wherever we have lived. At Oak Harbor, I have taken up clamming and crabbing among other outdoor recreational activities.

What has been one of your greatest professional challenges, and how did you address it?

One of the greatest challenges I have faced is building consensus in diverse teams with varying perspectives on important policy issues facing a community. My response to this is to be the leader that I would like to work for and with if I was in a subordinate role.

My approach to leadership is to lead by example, encourage collaboration, and coach when needed. At Oak Harbor, I encouraged collaboration through weekly leadership team meetings, special topic meetings as needed, and weekly one-on-one meetings with direct reports. I also held quarterly Director retreats and semiannual all-hands staff meetings. Lastly, I provided biweekly staff updates and special notices. The Oak Harbor Fire Chief said at the December 2023 Director Retreat that this was the best team he had worked with in his 12 years as the Fire Chief. The leadership team all played a role in the two fire referendums passing and the construction of the new fire station.

What has your work in public service taught you?

Despite the challenges I have faced in local government leadership, I remain positive in my effort to resume my career in another community. I know that I have provided legacy leadership in every community that I have been blessed to serve. In Ronceverte, I started the reconstruction efforts of a new sewer plant. In Kronenwetter, I moved the Village toward efficient government. In Rhinelander, I established a revenue source that is only available to a few cities in the State of Wisconsin. In Lake Geneva, I was acknowledged by the Geneva Shore Report as possibly the greatest City Administrator, given my quiet reform efforts. In Oak Harbor, I secured millions of dollars in grant funding, moved the city on from a controversial sewer plant project, and created a Parks and Recreation Department.

What book is on your nightstand right now?

I enjoy the message of the book For the Love of Cities by Peter Kageyama. His updated book accurately describes the love affair between people and place. I have found that one of the advantages of being a new city manager is that I don’t have history and old conflicts of interest and can get to work right away with people who love their community which makes me love my new community. Sometimes I wish my tenure with some of these communities could be longer but looking back I now have several hometowns with people that I love. In each of these, I can reflect on specific goals and accomplishments that I have generated in those diverse settings and would be proud to live in each.