The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

In times of disagreement, respect and decency are paramount


July 21, 2015

Respect has been a key attribute of Sweet Home city government for many years and, particularly for those of us who have experienced government in other communities where such has not been the case, it has been appreciated.

That’s why a seemingly minor blowup at last week’s City Council meeting, between Councilor Dave Trask and City Manager Craig Martin, should concern us all.

The brief, but spirited exchange, reported in our story on page 7 about a discussion of the city’s fencing ordinance, gives us a sense that it is symptomatic of a greater problem: growing tension between some councilors and city staff.

That is not healthy for any of us.

Trask took what appeared to be an indirect shot at city employees in comments about the permit requirements for new fences, and Martin asked him to be careful how he addresses city staff.

Trask replied that, as an elected official, Martin works for him.

“I’m getting tired of the stuff that gets thrown back at us because we ask questions,” he said, forcefully.

Trask is correct that elected council members are in charge. The city manager works for the council. But we find it a sorry, unhealthy state of affairs when Trask apparently feels that staffers are somehow trying to stymie him in his efforts to do his job, and that the city manager feels the need to defend a staff member during a council meeting.

This doesn’t bode well for the relationship between the staff and council, and it doesn’t bode well for us, the Sweet Home community.

The City Council sets policies and the staff follows those policies. We expect this process to be carried out with professionalism and respect.

The League of Oregon Cities manual for elected city officials, in fact, specifically advises council members against “disruptive communication” and its Code of Conduct includes the following: “I will honor others in public and protect others in their absence.”

We understand that council members may be frustrated with the zig-zag course they have been sailing in recent months on certain issues. But, in carefully observing what’s been going on, we don’t believe the staff is to be blamed for most of the hiccups the council has experienced in its deliberations over marijuana, water and sewer rates and trash rates.

When it had the chance, the council failed to implement a moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries. The council hemmed and hawed and never approved a moratorium. It could have. The Planning Commission failed to propose any rules when the council turned the question over to commissioners.

When pot came back up, new Councilor Jeff Goodwin offered a number of varied proposals, centering on prohibition. That turned into a two-hour dialogue during which councilors ultimately told the public that they never were interested in prohibition. Goodwin was interested in it though, and it was his proposals that prompted the public outcry among supporters of legal pot.

Now, with a new state law in hand, as we report at the top of page 1 this week, the council will consider prohibiting the production and sale of marijuana, both medical and recreational, and it will send the question to the voters.

The staff will do what the council decides. Along the way, though, staffers should provide expert advice, which is their role. That’s what we pay them to do. Council members come up with a policy decision and staff members figure out how to implement it, legally and strategically.

We saw nothing during the decision-making process, in open meetings regarding the marijuana issue – which was the only forum in which the council could legally discuss that issue, which smelled of interference by staff with the council’s wishes. The only real interference we saw came from council members themselves, who disagreed with each other – which is as it should be.

The fact that staff members raised concerns about the cost and legal risks involved with following through with proposals being considered by the council is simply what they are supposed to do.

The council has had similar disagreements over water and sewer rates, as spelled out in our reports, also on page 1.

In the meetings on those isues, all the discussion taking place in open sessions (as it should be), we saw nothing that remotely smacked of interference by staff. The staff offered advice, but the decisions were the council’s.

It’s not complicated. Councilors can propose an action by making a motion, get a second from another council member, and vote on any issue they like. Robert’s Rules of Order provide guidelines when city policy does not.

We like the fact that councilors are thinking about how things could be improved, but they need to remember that staffers are there to make it all work and, frankly, they’ve brought up some good points during the discussions mentioned above regarding why some ideas might not fly too well.

But all of this requires effort and time, which can pose very real problems for staff, particularly in a fairly small city.

When the council decides it wants to investigate how other cities are handling marijuana legality in the wake of Measure 91’s passage, one or more staff members spend hours making calls, doing research and writing reports. That means staffers aren’t doing other things they’re normally doing.

When water rates, sewer rates and trash-collection rates get added into the mix, well, do the math.

If the council asks for something legally tenuous and potentially expensive, such as prohibiting marijuana throughout the city in the face of state law, it’s the responsiblity of staff to let councilors know there are risks. Doing so doesn’t make staffers insubordinate. It’s their job.

While the council dickers over 15 cents in trash rates and a few dollars in water and sewer rates, it’s staffers’ job to point out the potential repercussions of whatever financial decisions the council makes.

We think our city manager and his staff are generally exceptional people. We find them to be of good character, even when we disagree with them and write critically about them. The fact that you don’t see investigative journalism stories in this newspaper about malfeasance in city government is simply because we don’t see it – and we’re watching.

Our city has been in good shape because we have a good staff who generally give good advice and the council has generally paid attention to what the experts are telling them.

Sure, we could complain about the crime rate. We can certainly mutter about the cost of water, while factoring in the very real the problems we face with our water and sewer systems.

These are the kinds of questions that plague all human establishments.

We appreciate that our city didn’t go broke during the Great Recession, as others, such as Oakridge, have – that city staff found ways to ensure our Police Department remained funded even after its tax levy failed to provide enough revenue to fund it.

City staff led the way with plans to pay for the Police Department building from its existing resources with a minimal bond levy it retired early. City staff led the way socking away money into a building reserve fund for a new City Hall that is likely still years away from even becoming a proposal for discussion. When needed, if not squandered, money is already available to help pay that expense.

Those are staff proposals approved by a fore-sighted council and Budget Committee.

Craig Martin has been an excellent city manager.

Our City Council’s history is not a “rubber stamp” as Jeff Goodwin suggested in a recent email conversation with the Public Works director. The silly $130,000 water filling station that still hasn’t been constructed is proof enough of that.

The lack of significant conflict and tension between city staff and the council in the past couple of decades is not evidence of rubber stamping. It’s been the result of good management and common courtesy between staff and council membvers.

We don’t need the council to demonstrate conflict to prove it’s not a rubber stamp for city staff.

We urge the council and city staff to keep it cool and work together. End the posturing, the bickering.

Sweet Home is too small a community for this and council members should recognize that. This is not the big city where political expediency and power grabs often outweigh common decency.

When good people begin trashing good people, bad things are in store.

For all of us.


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2019