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An end-of-year re-examination of how public agencies in Columbia County compare on transparency and open government

Earlier this year, the Spotlight examined public agencies in Columbia County to gauge how committed each was to maintaining transparency and public involvement. As the year comes to a close, we revisited each agency to see whether any changes have been made. This week, we take a look at the cities of Scappoose and St. Helens, as well as schools and special districts operating in south Columbia County. While some seem to be making small, but meaningful strides toward better serving the public, others haven't implemented any new efforts, and a few agencies have fallen further from the spirit of Oregon's public records and meetings laws.

Cities

City of Scappoose: A

Last grade: A

They say if something isn't broke, don't fix it. In the case of Scappoose, the city gets high marks for its convenient meeting times, easy access to recordings of each meeting, and full agenda packets posted online. Beyond just meetings, staff is friendly, helpful and the city's mayor never hesitates to pick up the phone. We think other agencies can learn from Scappoose.

City of St. Helens: A

Last grade: A-

The city of St. Helens continues to make great strides to be accountable and transparent when it comes to its work sessions and meetings. Full agenda packets are posted online days in advance and contain pertinent documents and details. In recent months the city council has also been live-streaming city council meetings and posting video recording on the city's website. The city's ability to broadcast to cable TV through Comcast has been down since summer, but new equipment to restart broadcasts was expected to be installed this week. The city council meeting chambers were also upgraded with a new projection system earlier this year which allows public viewing of documents being reviewed and discussed at meetings.

Room for improvement: Regular meetings are still held at 7 p.m. to allow working adults to attend, while the majority of discussions about agenda topics take place during afternoon work sessions, which falls during the workday for most people. Work sessions are held at 1 p.m. The city does go to great lengths to ensure the public has access to records of meetings or other ways to be involved, if a resident cannot physically attend, however. Records requests are responded to promptly.

Special districts

Port of St. Helens: C+

Last grade: D

While the Port hasn't improved by leaps and bounds, it has made minor, but meaningful adjustments. The agency was notorious for providing bare bones information about its public meetings, which are held at 8:30 on weekdays, when most are at work. Since the Spotlight last published its grade for the Port, agency staff recently began uploading staff briefings about agenda items for meetings, and Port commissioners have lobbied for a more user-friendly website with easier access to more information. With a new executive director who names transparency as a top priority and makes a point to reach out to public stakeholders and the press, the Port has shown it wants to be receptive to public concerns and interests. In addition to providing more information online to accompany meeting agendas, Doug Hayes, the Port's new executive director, says the Port has "looked at a comprehensive Strategic Communication Plan to increase visits to media outlets such as radio and print and to increase attendance at public gatherings."

SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Columbia River People's Utility District directors discuss business during a board meeting. The PUD gained two new directors this year and permanently hired its interim general manager.Columbia River People's Utility District: C+

Last grade: B-

Not much has changed at the PUD, except for the district's board. With two new directors now settled in and serving on the board, we had hoped to see more meaningful dialog among directors during meetings and hoped maybe the district would heed the suggestion of ratepayers who suggested the agency move toward video recording its meetings for public access.

In addition to the appointment, the district's directors voted in April to hire the PUD's interim general manager on permanently, without any public recruitment process. The job offer came with a substantial pay increase that now makes him the highest paid public official in Columbia County. In fact, the PUD manager's $207,000 salary is just shy of what the city of Portland's police chief earns.

After appointing a director to the board earlier this year who was criticized as being someone the board hand-picked as the most go-along, get-along counterpart, shortly before hiring a manager it gave many ratepayers pause. On paper, the district complies with state meetings laws, keeps an up-to-date social media presence for ratepayers, and meets the criteria for its grade, but there are deeper issues that linger within the agency.

Room for improvement: In recent months, the board has operated in a rubber stamp fashion, rarely disagreeing or finding ways to dissect topics beyond what staff suggests. Director Rob Mathers' comments earlier this year, lambasting the press for staying on a story about the PUD's attorney who is still under investigation by the Oregon State Bar Association, proves that those elected to oversee the operation fail to embrace anything that isn't positive press. Furthermore, directly appointing a manager while ignoring the standard public recruitment process demonstrates a lack of regard for fairness, or the public's best interest.

Schools

St. Helens School District: B

Last grade: B

The St. Helens School District has maintained a similar level of transparency since the previous review. The district continues to use its mobile application to publish school information and allows easy access to sports schedules, social media links and parent portals. The district also continues to publish audio recordings of its board meetings and publishes some supporting documents online before board meetings.

Room for improvement: The district continues to lag, however, when it comes to posting board packet materials or agendas in advance of school board meetings. Requests for missing materials are often fulfilled within one to two business days, however. The district has prided itself on increasing internal communication and feedback channels with Superintendent Scot Stockwell, established a District Culture and Climate Committee in August, which would be comprised of parents, employee representatives from various education associations and no more than two school board members. The committee is set to meet quarterly to advise the superintendent of areas that in need of improvement. It's unclear if the committee has met yet this year.

SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - The Scappoose School District board of directors listens to a presentation regarding superintendent recruitment during a summer board meeting. The Scappoose School District board improved its transparency rating since the Spotlight's last review and earned a B for making efforts to be more accountable with digital records.Scappoose School District: B

Last grade: B-

The Scappoose School District has improved communications on its Facebook page, posting somewhat frequently with photos and information about district activities. Last school year the board of directors was forced to move its meetings to various school buildings and the Scappoose City Hall Chambers due to overcrowding in the district office. Over the summer, the board restored its meeting room and all board meetings and work sessions have been held in the district office again, making it easy for citizens to remember the location to attend.

Room for improvement: The district's website continues to prove difficult to navigate and is not always user-friendly. In October, the school board voted to approve an increase its contract with BlackBoard to build and host a new website for the district. The St. Helens and Hillsboro also use the website developer, which provides the district access to a mobile application builder as well. While no upgrades have been made yet, the commitment is a step in the right direction.

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