First off, let me assure you that by and large I think strange is good. That's why I had a Strange Up Salem column in Salem Weekly for three years and continue to maintain a Facebook page by that name.
But watching a Salem City Council hearing last night on an appeal of the use of $400,000 worth of SDC (System Development Charge) funds to buy a property at 298 Taybin Road in West Salem left me with a decidedly uneasy sense of strangeness.
Something didn't feel right.
As you can read below, there's something wrong with how the City Council interacts with concerned citizens and city staff. I've noticed this for a long time, but it became crystal clear last night how bad the problems are -- foremost among which is the fact that most members of the City Council don't seem concerned about this.
With three new councilors joining the council in January, hopefully things will change for the better. Here's five takeaways from the hearing.
(1) City staff stonewalled Easterly's efforts to get information he needed for his appeal. Easterly started off with a brilliant summation of the basis for his appeal.
Download SW Oral Testimony Narrative Document #7
Let me be as blunt as possible I am charging the Public Works staff with a level of hubris fostered by decades of well-intended recommendations that, whether intentional or not, skated around adopted City policies and the City's legal obligations. The defendants in this appeal are those City staff members who disregarded their responsibilities to Council and inappropriately recommended the use of Stormwater SDC funds to purchase the Taybin property.
The relationship between staff and Council must be one of trust. Council relies upon accurate and legally correct information from staff. The staff recommendation which council adopted last November to purchase a parcel of land in West Salem was an inappropriate application of staff's discretionary responsibility.
...Transparency is missing; the decision-making body (City Council) has not been fully advised. This pattern of ignoring inconvenient City policies and procedures and not following the rule of law is not new; indeed, it has been acknowledged by City legal staff.
Therefore, my appeal this evening focuses upon the City staff's abuse of discretion when applying Council adopted policies and procedures and staff's failing to provide full and transparent disclosure of the information and reasoning which support its recommended action.
Easterly listed 25 questions he submitted to City staff that were ignored over a four-month period. Yet the slogan of the City of Salem is "At Your Service."
That's untrue. Glenn Davis, Peter Fernandez, and other City staff did a marked disservice to Easterly by stonewalling his requests for information.
Download SW Unanswered questions II
(2) Concerned citizens should be viewed as heroes, not villains. People like Easterly who spend months trying to hold city staff and the City Council accountable for their actions should be applauded. Yet it is clear that staff, and to a lesser extent the council also, viewed Easterly as an annoyance to be brushed away.
This is wrong.
Easterly is akin to an explorer who ventures deep into the jungle of the City of Salem bureaucracy and returned with tales of what he found there. His report should have been met with concern by city councilors and the City Manager.
They could have said, "Mr. Easterly, I'm sorry you had such a problem getting information you needed for your appeal. We want to meet with you and figure out ways we can do things better."
But, no. There was none of that. This is the sign of an organization that hunkers down in a defensive crouch when critics point out flaws in city operations rather than viewing criticism as an opportunity to improve.
(3) The City Council has way too much trust in city staff. There is no ombudsperson at the City of Salem, no equivalent of the Inspectors General who look into misdeeds by federal agencies. The City Council is who citizens look to for oversight of city operations.
But last night I heard councilors glibly say, "I guess we have to trust city staff." Huh? The same city staff who stonewalled Easterly's efforts to get information about the Taybin Road purchase for supposed stormwater purposes is to be trusted when they provide information to city councilors?
What leads them to believe that?
There was plenty of opportunity to ask probing questions of staff. Easterly provided 25 of them. Yet as described below, the most basic questions about the Taybin Road purchase went either unanswered, or unremarked on when disturbing answers were provided last night.
(4) A stormwater purchase should relate to a stormwater project, right? Not at City Hall. Easterly did his best to get city staff to answer questions about why, exactly, $400,000 in stormwater SDC funds were spent to buy the Taybin Road property and have a house on it demolished.
After all, an issue at the heart of his appeal was whether state law was followed in the purchase. Easterly told the council:
By law Stormwater SDC funds must be used for stormwater infrastructure improvements. The November staff report recommended the land purchase claiming the purchase supported “Reliable and Efficient Infrastructure” without describing that stormwater infrastructure and without explaining how or why Stormwater SDC funds may be utilized to facilitate “Natural Environment Stewardship”.
At the hearing Councilor Kaser, I think it was, asked Fernandez if anything had been done with the property in the four months since it supposedly was an "immediate need" for stormwater management. He answered that nothing had been done with it, other than demolishing the house that used to be on it.
Further, Fernandez didn't describe any specific future stormwater project planned for the property either. He said that sometime in the future, they might do something with the property, stormwater-wise. Or, maybe not. Ditto for its use as right of way for Marine Drive. That might happen. Or it might not.
If someone's spouse came home and said, "Honey, I just spent $400,000 on a lot," then couldn't provide any specific reason why the purchase was a good idea, likely there would be an intense discussion, to put it mildly. But the City Council, with the exception of Jackie Leung, who was the sole vote in favor of the appeal, just shrugged off the non-answer from Fernandez.
Like I said above, the council trusts city staff to do the right thing. Which is a really dangerous attitude for a City Council to take, because it makes staff think they can do anything and won't be held to account for it.
(5) An executive session to discuss the property purchase was a sham. Glenn Davis and Peter Fernandez repeatedly talked about a November 2019 executive session where, I assume, the terms of the purchase were discussed, followed by City Council approval of the purchase. Easterly writes:
The November 2019 council authorization to purchase the Taybin parcel reflects Council reliance upon and trust in staff recommendations. The staff recommendation appears to be a continuation of staff abuse of discretion that has occurred over a number of years regarding the application of the Salem Area Comprehensive Plan policies and subordinate master plan policies.
I kept waiting for a city councilor to say something like, "Oh, now I remember. In the executive session staff explained that the reason for buying the property was to make these stormwater improvements to the area."
But no, there was nothing like that. Apparently city staff just said something like, "We want to buy the property with stormwater SDC funds" and the City Council obliged with few if any probing questions.
This is no way for a City Council to behave, as a lackey of staff rather than as an overseer of staff decisions and recommendations.
That gets me to a message I sent E.M. Easterly last night as a first attempt to digest what happened at the hearing. I'll include it as a continuation to this post.
My basic point is that the council is unduly intertwined with city staff. For example, at last night's hearing, city staff were defending their actions while also providing information to the council, an obvious conflict of interest. They got to interact with the council to a much greater degree than Easterly did.
E.M., you should feel good about what you did, because you tried to do the right thing. It was frustrating to watch the hearing, because there was so little recognition from the council of how difficult it is for someone like you to confront city staff about whether they did the right thing, given how much power and control those staff have.