Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The city manager’s appointee for aquarium director was not the first pick. It was a Canadian. Here’s what happened

VIRGINIA BEACH — On Wednesday, the city announced the appointment of Cynthia Whitbred-Spanoulis as director of the Department of Aquarium and Historic Houses. Whitbred-Spanoulis had been the interim-director since Lynn Clements retired as director in August 2017.

One reason the aquarium went nearly a year without an official director is because a different candidate — from Canada — was originally offered the job as aquarium director nearly six months agoaccording to documents obtained through a FOIA request.

Nearly all of the documents obtained by Southside Daily for this story — including the documents referenced above — had the candidate’s name redacted. However, several FOIA documents did include the candidate’s name — Dolf Dejong.

Dejong most recently worked at the Vancouver Aquarium and his recruitment to work in Virginia Beach would have required an H-1B foreign worker visa, which the city spent months trying to secure. H-1B visas are typically reserved for skilled foreign workers if qualified candidates cannot be found in the United States. 

It remains unclear why the city tried to recruit Dejong rather than appoint Whitbred-Spanoulis, whose appointment as aquarium director indicates comparable qualifications to Dejong.

Whitbred-Spanoulis did not respond to multiple attempts to get comment.

Known risks with H-1B visa process

Dejong confirmed in a phone interview Thursday that the redacted job offer letter from Jan. 24 was indeed addressed to him, saying that it was clear then that he had the aquarium director role.

“My conversations with the city about the aquarium position were positive then,” Dejong said. “We all knew the uncertainty of the H-1B visa process going in, but remained optimistic.”

Dejong on April 9 formally accepted the job offer and gave notice to the Vancouver Aquarium of his intent to move to Virginia Beach for the aquarium director role. Dejong said his last day working at the Vancouver Aquarium was June 29.

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However, early the following week, Dejong said he was informed that his H-1B visa was not selected. On July 6, Dejong said he received a letter from Virginia Beach City Manager Dave Hansen rescinding the job offer for the director role at the aquarium because he could not secure an H-1B visa. Five days later, Whitbred-Spanoulis’s appointment was publicly announced.

Dejong stressed that Hansen, Deputy City Manager Ron Williams and city staff had all “been very supportive and patient” during the visa process. Dejong said he’s disappointed, but not with city officials.

“You’ve got a great team in Virginia Beach that’s looking to be real champions of the ocean and make a difference,” Dejong said. “Again, I’m just so disappointed that I’m not going to get to be a part of that.”

Although 11 months have passed since Clements retired, Dejong pointed out that an aquarium taking a year to recruit new leadership is “not unusual.”

Dejong had only a 1 in 3 chance to secure visa

Hansen led the effort to secure an H-1B Foreign Worker Visa for Dejong, along with at least two outside law firms hired by the city in order to procure Dejong’s H-1B visa, according to emails from Hansen.

Pamela Deming of the city attorney’s office said that as of June 15, the city had not received invoices for those legal services as the process was still ongoing.

Hansen briefed City Council on the visa process needed to recruit Dejong during the Feb. 20 closed session, according to emails from Hansen. City Council agreed to move forward with that process, everyone except for City Councilman John Moss.

Moss believed Hansen and City Attorney Mark Stiles did not provide full disclosure to council members during their discussions about Dejong’s recruitment and the H-1B visa process.

Moss also said it was possible that Hansen may have inflated Dejong’s qualifications in order to secure council’s permission in moving forward with the H-1B process.

“My concern is that if a full disclosure had been made as to the H-1B visa process and all the specifics of an H-1B visa were known, the outcome of council’s consent may have been different,” Moss said in an April 9 email to Hansen.

The H-1B via relies on a lottery system for applicants’ selection, and according to a June 4 email from the city’s Human Resources Recruitment Manager Monica Kopin, the city believed that Dejong had only a 1 in 3 chance of having his visa selected and approved at that time.

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