Boiling point: Silverton City Councilors frustrated by the tenor of meetings

August 2014 Posted in News
Silverton City Council
The Silverton City Council meets the
first Monday of the month at 7 p.m.,
Silverton Council Chambers, 421 S Water St.
Agenda available upon request or visit
www.silverton.or.us.

The council’s next meeting is Monday, Aug. 4.
The urban renewal meeting starts at 5:30 p.m.,
followed by the council meeting at 7 p.m.
The public is welcome to attend.

Meetings are aired on SCAN TV – 135.4
for digital TVs. Or, on your computer,
go to www.scan-tv.org and click on “WATCH”
for a live stream of the event.

Silverton voters will cast ballots for
mayor and three city councilors in the
Nov. 4 election. Incumbents are Mayor
Stu Rasmussen and city councilors Bill Cummins,
Scott Walker and Randal Thomas.
There are two ways to file to be a
city council candidate – pay a $50 fee
along with a form or gather 20 valid signatures.
Forms are available at Silverton City Hall,
306 S. Water or by visiting
www.oregonvotes.gov.

By Kristine Thomas

In separate interviews, Silverton Mayor Stu Rasmussen, Councilors Ken Hector and Randal Thomas and City Manager Bob Willoughby each said that he is extremely frustrated at what’s happening at city council meetings.

Individually they point out the meetings are too long and council members are disrespectful to one another, the staff, and speakers from the community.

That frustration reached the boiling point at the council’s July 7 meeting. What was anticipated to be an hour-long council session, followed by an Urban Renewal meeting at 8 p.m., turned into a marathon lasting until about 11:30 p.m.

According to council protocol, the council must vote to continue once the clock strikes 10 p.m.  They did, and the meeting rolled on.

On the Urban Renewal agenda was a grant request by Compex Two IT Co. The applicant sat waiting in the audience for the Urban Renewal discussion to finally begin at 10:35 p.m.

While those interviewed acknowledge and agree there is a problem, they disagree why it is happening, who is reponsible and how to solve it.

“We have the attitude that ‘I am fine. It’s the rest of them that’s the problem,’” Rasmussen said. “We are a dysfunctional family.”

At the Aug. 4, 7 p.m. council meeting at the Silverton Community Center, Hector said he plans to address the problem that the council is not following its own rules.

“Our meetings are poorly run and they are obviously way too long,” Hector said. “The last meeting was particularly ugly and it comes down to lack of leadership.”

He said meetings have gotten progressively worse because nothing has ever been done to resolve the problem.

“If you don’t do something, it just becomes accepted,” Hector said. “Everyone is complaining about it. It’s time to do something about it.”

Members of the council include the mayor and six councilors. Our Town contacted all for this story. Councilors Jason Freilinger and Laurie Carter did not respond to two email requests for an interview. Councilor Bill Cummins declined to comment, citing work commitments. Councilor Scott Walker said in an email that he had family in town and was not available for comment until after the paper’s deadline.


When meetings were cordial

Councilor Randal Thomas is the longest consecutive member of the council, serving 12 years. He recalls a time when councilors were respectful to one another and the meetings were conducted in a professional manner that followed council protocol.

“We had council members who were to the extreme left and to the extreme right,” he said. “We treated each other with respect. And when there was a vote, those who were on the opposing side still talked to one another. We made a decision and we moved on.”

Now, he said, councilors are often rude to one another, the staff and the public. It used to be a councilor would raise his or her hand to indicate he or she wanted to speak and then the mayor would acknowledge the person. Now, Thomas said, councilors interrupt one another, the public and the city staff.

“With this council, there is no trust, no collaboration and there is no respect for one another’s differences,” he said.

He also has noticed it’s apparent some councilors aren’t doing the job and reading the agenda packets before the meetings. Instead, they ask questions that they would have known the answers to if they had read the packet.

In the past, he added, if councilors had a question after reading the packet, they would call the city staff to learn additional information. Now, councilors put staff members on the spot by asking questions the staff may need to research in order to be prepared to answer.

“City council meetings are like a circus,” Thomas said. “We should start holding our meetings in a circus tent and charge admission.”

From talking to community members, Thomas said it appears the council is anti-business and that there is a dissatifaction with how meetings are conducted.

Any citizen who speaks during public comment, Thomas said, should be given the utmost respect.

“He or she should not be chastised or laughed at,” he said. “Even if you disagree with someone you should still treat them with respect.”

Thomas also said it’s his opinion that there is too much micro-managing by the councilors of the city staff.

“What some councilors are trying to do, for example, is tell the police department they get 30 pencils and there can be three pencils per officer,” he said.

“What we should be doing is saying, here’s a $100 for office supplies and you know best how to spend it. The problem this council has is trying to dictate the details.”

Thomas said it’s the mayor’s responsibility to manage the meetings and to make sure the council is following its own protocol.

“We need to learn to put aside our differences, follow the protocol and move forward in a fashion that is in the best interest of the public so we can achieve our council goals,” he said.


Wants meetings to be inclusive 

Mayor Stu Rasmussen said the responsibility of the city council is to conduct the public’s business. City council meetings are a way for councilors to gather information from citizens so they can made an informed decision, he said.

“This is a council that likes to discuss and ask questions,” he said. “Some are germane to the issue and some are not.”

He took responsibility for the July meeting lasting too long, especially the public comment section. He said once he let one person talk more than the three-minute time limit, it would be unfair to the next person to cut him off.

“I desperately try to set the tone and I always try to be courteous and inclusive. I think that’s what makes the meetings run longer,” he said.

Another situation that frequently happens, he said, is a citizen will be talking, then a councilor will ask a question before the citizen is finished speaking, then the person will start again, only to be interrupted again.

“When do you start and stop the clock,” he asked.

Believing in managing a “representative democracy,” Rasmussen said he thinks people deserve the right to have their say. He said he allows public comment on agenda items not covered because he thinks it’s important for the community to weigh in.

“We are conducting business for the citizens and they need to be heard,” he said.

He also acknowledges council members are rude to one another. He thinks what is happening nationally in politics is trickling down to the local level.

“There used to be a lot more respect on the council and a willingness to listen to alternative viewpoints,” he said. “I don’t see that level of cooperation and respect anymore.  It’s now an attitude of it’s my way or the highway. We are so polarized.”

If the public would like a council that works well together, Rasmussen said voters need to get to know whom they are voting for.

“They need to pay attention to what’s happening in council meetings and see how councilors are behaving,” he said. “I think we have councilors who are voting in their best interest rather than what is in the best interest of the community.”

Rasmussen said when he has tried to encourage citizens to run for council, he has been told they don’t want to be involved in something “so ugly.”

He feels because he’s transgender he is the target of a great deal of “the nastiness,” thus making it a challenge to lead.

“What we desperately need on the council are open minded, intelligent and logical members who will work to benefit the entire community,” he said.


An athletic event with no rules or referee 

Councilor Ken Hector agrees when a community member attends a meeting, he or she should have the opportunity to voice his or her concerns. However, he said, the three-minute time limit should be enforced, otherwise a person can go on for 15 minutes or more.

“At our July meeting, it was 8:15 before we got done with public comments,” he said. “There is a process that should be followed and when it’s not, it exacerbates things.”

He said the responsibility of how the meetings are managed belongs to the mayor.

“The mayor shouldn’t allow the council to be rude to staff or to the public,” Hector said. “The mayor should support the staff even if he disagrees with them.”

He agrees with the mayor that council meetings are a time to ask questions of the city staff and even the public.

“The idea the council should be open and transparent is fine,” Hector said, adding he does not want meetings to become too rigid.

But while he wants community members to feel comfortable sharing their ideas, he said, council protocol best determines how that is accomplished. Hector said current city council meetings are like an athletic event with no referee and the teams aren’t following the rules.

“First graders know to raise their hands when they want to speak and that it is not OK to be rude to someone or interrupt,” he said. “I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the councilors show some common sense and common courtesy to one another. It baffles me it has gotten this far.”

Hector has served on the council on and off for 28 years. He doesn’t understand why the council has gotten so adversarial or why the attacks have become so personal.

“You may not agree on an issue but that is no reason to be rude,” he said.


Pendulum has swung too far 

City Manager Bob Willoughby said he has spoken to the council about attending training on how to run meetings more efficiently and how to work together, despite differences.

“I have been told they are not interested,” he said. “There is a right way to run the council meetings that follows the council’s own protocol and with some training that could happen. The problem is the council has to want to change and right now, they have not indicated they want to change.”

He has also spoken with Rasmussen about the three-minute public comment rule and even offered to manage the clock. The mayor declined, Willoughby said.

“What often happens is during public comment people can bring up things not on the agenda,” he said. “Usually that is the time to ask the item be considered for the next agenda. Instead what happens is a discussion with city councilors asking questions to the person and then the staff. When the council asks questions that aren’t on the agenda, it often catches the staff off guard.”

One misunderstanding people have is that the city manager controls the meetings, Willoughby said.

“I don’t control the meetings,” he added. “That is the mayor’s responsibility. The city council meetings are not very efficient. I don’t know how to speed the process up. I have found the less I say that quicker the process. The times I have tried to advise the council only prolonged the meeting.”

A key to making change begins with the mayor, Willoughby said.

“Leadership comes from the mayor,” he said. “It’s his task to manage the meetings. He sets the agenda, runs the meetings and sets the time for public comment.”

Willoughby provided a copy of the Silverton City Council Protocols and Guidelines that were updated on April 1, 2013: “The Mayor is responsible for preserving order, enforcing Council rules, and determining the order of business under the rules of the Council.”

In some ways, Willoughby said, he thinks the city council is “dysfunctional.”

“Before I got here, a lot of people were being rude to one another and it hasn’t gone away,” he said.

Willoughby said he believes the reason the meetings take too long stems from the objective to conduct the city’s business in an open and transparent manner.

“I think in the council’s effort to do that they go to an excess and allow people to talk more than the allotted three minutes and to say whatever they want, including negative comments directed at me, one another, the staff and the public,” he said.

Willoughby said it’s a noble goal to want to run meetings that are open and transparent “but the pendulum has swung too far. Citizens should be able to express their viewpoint within the three-minute time limit. Too often if they are given more time, they just repeat themselves.”

Willoughby acknowledges the public discourse has gotten more and more uncivil.

“I think the council reflects the community,” he said. “It will stop when the council and the community decide it’s time for it to stop and everyone should be respectful of everyone else’s opinions and ideas.”

What’s frustrating for Willoughby is the process the council takes to make a decision – which tends to be drawn out and combative.

“It’s a process to get to a decision, and it’s painful to take the journey, but once the decision has been made it is generally in the best interest of the city,” he said.

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