Conduct to be focus for council this month this month

Sean C. Morgan

The City Council will spend most of June considering possible changes to its code of conduct.

Councilors reviewed their code of conduct and discussed communications and ethics during a special meeting held on Thursday, June 2.

A council will revisit its annual goals, probably at 6 p.m. on Aug. 9, to allow public input. Interim City Manager Christy Wurster said that the council’s goals are a key way to communicate with city staff.

“We established, and then we got into some other ‘soup’ and kept us from completing what we needed to do because the goals had not been vetted through the public yet,” said Mayor Jim Gourley.

The council considered whether to approve the draft goals earlier this year but declined to do so. Councilor Jeff Goodwin said the goals still need some work.

During the meeting on Thursday, Gourley went over the council’s existing code of conduct, which was approved in 1998. The code governs council behavior, prohibiting personal attacks and outlining how councilors and members of the public should interact.

City Attorney Robert Snyder outlined public meetings law.

A majority – a quorum – of council members cannot meet outside of a meeting that has been announced legally through the posting of an agenda, though they may attend the same social gatherings, but cannot discuss city business there.

Snyder warned against serial meetings via electronic communications or through personal contact. Once a couple of councilors have discussed an idea and then move on and talk to other councilors about it, courts have ruled that public bodies such as a council can be in violation of public meetings.

Citing a Lane County case, a court has held that “although a quorum never met, there was a series of meetings orchestrated to avoid having a discussion of the matter in public; therefore, serial communications constitute a meeting,” Snyder said.

“The trick and the art of the profession is figuring out how we can come to a common place to advance the city,” Wurster said. “We’re not always going to agree on all of the issues, or the council’s not necessarily going to agree. You’re going to have different opinions and ideas, but that’s reflective of your community members. They all have different ideas. They’re your constituents, and you’re representing them. So I think it’s just figuring out how we can get to that happy place and being a well-functioning organization. The code of ethics you have adopted is a very good starting point.”

She presented codes from other Oregon city councils for consideration.

“We should look at adopting some of these ideas because it clears up a lot, more than just the gray areas we deal with here,” said Councilor James Goble, who originally requested the June 2 meeting. “It helps clear up areas in our public forum meetings, which that has been a huge ordeal here lately.”

Goodwin said he believes the biggest issue is “the communication one.”

“I think that’s absolutely huge. I think we’ve had communication issues within the council. Part of that is the public versus private sort of thing. I raised some concerns about that before. But just generally wanting to make sure the council feels like they can talk to each other when we’re up here. This is the place for us to talk about the issues. We need to have those conversations.

“And then communications issues between the council and the city manager, between the council and city staff. I feel like the communication there isn’t what we want it to be. Then between the council and the public, I know the public feels that way. They feel like they’re not being communicated with. So you’ve kind of got a combination of kind of three issues there that each probably need to be addressed.”

Councilors also were concerned that their meetings are not well attended by the public.

Perhaps that’s because of the meeting time, 7:30 p.m. for the council’s regular meetings on the second and fourth Tuesdays, said Councilor Ryan Underwood. That late, families with small children are getting them ready for bed. Others might have a late dinner.

Gary Jarvis, a resident of Sweet Home, said the council’s efforts are a step in the right direction. He recalled sending carefully written comments to the City Council when the council had called for public input a couple of years ago.

A couple of councilors joked then that they didn’t have time to read any of it.

“We felt very disrespected at that meeting,” Jarvis said. “We had taken about three hours to carefully draw out what our opinion was on it and then to find out it wasn’t even given any consideration.”

But the city has done a good job providing information, he said. One of the reasons he and his wife chose to move to Sweet Home three years ago was because the city staff were so responsive when they were asking a thousand questions about Sweet Home.

Resident Dave Erickson said that the executive sessions the council used to consider information about the city manager and a possible new City Hall actually caused problems for the council. Councilors caught a lot of flak because it deliberated in closed sessions.

The council can meet in what is called an executive session to consider a limited number of issues based on exceptions listed in Oregon statutes: litigation involving the city, labor negotiations, the hiring or disciplining of a public employee, or real estate acquisition or sale.

Councilors cannot make a decision in executive session.They must vote on issues in regular public session.

In the cases Erickson mentioned, the council decided to approve a retirement agreement with the former city manager and to spend $25,000 in earnest money on the former Sweet Home Ranger Station for possible use as a new city hall. When councilors made that decisions, it was the first time the public was made aware of either issue.

News media representatives may attend executive sessions, but by law, they are prohibited from reporting what they hear in the executive sessions. Media can report what is said in executive sessions when a public body is discussing information that does not belong in an executive session.

Gourley said he understands that people want to know what’s going on with these issues, but “we have to be a little bit careful. We have to go by what some of the attorneys say.”

Erickson also called for an investigation of two councilors.

One is employed by another. Greg Mahler owns Hoy’s Hardware, and Underwood works for him there.

“You need to stop there,” Gourley told Erickson. “I understand what you’re saying. I don’t want it to go any farther than that because I don’t want to have hard feelings over this.”

In another comment, he praised Wurster for expressing concern for the city’s staff with all of the changes currently under way.

“I think that’s a fine observation she made,” Erickson said. “She’s the first and only person I know since the council started all these changes to recognize the need to take into account how the staff people feel about all this change. It’s been obvious you guys didn’t know how to go about this. You didn’t have any good planning in here. She’s brought up some very good issues.”

Jane Hazen, a member of the Parks Board, was concerned about how to ask question.

“My problem is I come as a newcomer and I’m astonished every meeting at what Sweet Home doesn’t have, so I have to ask questions all the time, and that in terms of your rules, how does someone ask questions in this town,” Hazen said.

“How come we don’t have a park department? It sure looks like we don’t have a department. We have someone who oversees park maintenance but we do not have quote a park director that would be professionally qualified as a park director.

“Who do we ask questions to and how do we?

“As a newcomer you get a lot of serious disrespect for asking questions.”

During Thursday’s meeting, she indicated she wasn’t particularly interested in having those questions answered. She simply wanted to know how.

Councilors explained that their phone numbers are public records. They’re printed in The New Era whenever space permits.

Gourley said residents can always call him. He said he gets several calls a week from the public.

Goodwin outlined other ways. Every regular meeting, the second and fourth Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m., the public is invited to comment or ask questions near the beginning of the agenda. He is always happy to talk to the public there or at the grocery store.

“If you have 12 questions, I would like to know them,” said Councilor Dave Trask. He encouraged her to send her questions to him. He may not have answers, and he may have a strong opinion, but send them. Then the council can research the comments or questions and think about them.

Goodwin and Goble said the public can also access them on Facebook, although a quorum of councilors will not want to communicate in a Facebook thread for fear of violating public meetings laws.

Wrapping up the meeting, Gourley asked the councilors to identify the parts of other codes of conduct that they like and to turn that information in by the June 28 council meeting. That information would then be referred to the council’s administration and finance committee, which will develop a recommendation for the council.

Present at the meeting were Trask, Goodwin, Gourley, Underwood and Goble. Mahler was absent.

A seventh seat is currently vacant. For information about applying for the position, call the city manager’s office at (541) 367-8969. The council has not decided how it plans to appoint a replacement.