Council dysfunction could have big fiscal impacts
Shortly after the lunch hour Feb. 19, several City department leaders filed into a small community room at Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue's Station 59 for a City Council work session.
About 50 minutes into an expected hourlong session (the first of four separate meetings that lasted a total of about nine hours in various locations that day) the department heads — including Community Development Director John Williams, Parks and Recreation Director Ken Worcester, Library Director Doug Erickson and Public Works Director Lance Calvert — left after sitting quietly throughout the meeting. The intent was for them to take part in a discussion regarding the $19 million general obligation (GO) bond that was approved last May, but the council never got to that.
Instead, they spent the time arguing over appointments to citizen advisory boards before being forced to move on to a 2 p.m. executive session. The council suggested that the staff members might return later that day to have the bond discussion, but more confusion regarding schedules kept that from happening.
In fact, the day was a series of events that summed up everything that's gone wrong for this City Council over the past several years. After a tumultuous 2018 that saw two councilors step aside rather than running for re-election — while relations continued to fray between elected officials and city staff — this year is off to an even worse start.
In discussing a high-functioning City Council and what that might look like, let's start with the foundation of a council's work in a given year: its list of goals.
After two full days of goal-setting sessions on Jan. 17 and 18 (a total of 14 hours when you subtract time for lunch and breaks), February came and went without the council adopting its goals. In fact, the council scheduled a third session March 5 — in fairness, the original intent was for the session to take place Feb. 4 before inclement weather forced the cancellation of that meeting — and also spent time at the Feb. 25 work session discussing how to approach the March 5 session.
In other words, the council will be almost a quarter of the way through the year before it even sets its goals for 2019. And in the midst of a budget shortfall, the City also has to foot the bill for a contracted facilitator at all three of those goal-setting sessions (not to mention staff time used over those many hours as most department heads attend these sessions).
This issue of wasted staff time and money also extends to regular council meetings, which are disorganized and routinely last at least three hours. City Manager Eileen Stein has specifically cited concerns with legal fees related to these long meetings; City Attorney Tim Ramis, a contracted employee, charges by the hour.
There's a certain level of irony in legal services contributing to the City's budget issues — heading into budget season for 2020-21, West Linn is facing a projected $1.3 million shortfall — as attorney-related issues have become an obsession for what is now a majority of the council.
Council President Teri Cummings and Councilor Rich Sakelik have cried foul about the City's assistant attorney position since they were elected in 2016, and the newly elected Bill Relyea appears to be following in their footsteps.
The in-house, salaried attorney occupying that assistant position, Megan Thornton, resigned last May. The City thus relied on Ramis for more mundane legal issues during a particularly litigious 2018, piling up hourly costs in the process.
Perhaps even more ironic was a moment during the Feb. 25 meeting, when Sakelik revealed information from an executive session (these meetings are closed to the public and councilors generally are expected not to disclose information from them) while accusing Stein of a conflict of interest in her handling of a public records request related to — wait for it — an Oct. 15 executive session.
So while you may or may not be among the West Linn citizens who have expressed concerns about the attorney issue, the council's dysfunction on this and many other matters has very real consequences that affect all residents. The City may have to cut back on some services or institute new fees to balance its budget in the years to come. Already, Stein activated a voluntary early attrition program that provides severance for staffers who decide to leave.
While not entirely blameless for the council's disorganization and lack of direction, Mayor Russ Axelrod has
done his best to corral a set of councilors who seem to have little interest in working collaboratively with him or City staffers. New Councilor Jules Walters shows promise as a voice of reason, but is just a single voice who can be outvoted on most issues.
It's time to pay attention, West Linn. Last year we worried about the consequences of having only two people running for two open council seats, and there will simply have to be more engagement in the coming years for the situation at City Hall to improve.
Make no mistake: As the mayor said in his annual speech last week, West Linn is still fundamentally sound and a great place to live. But ineffective elected officials can ruin that in a hurry.
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