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Scappoose council furthers appearance of impropriety

The Scappoose City Council attempted to steer the city in a dangerous direction again last month, this time when it sought to circumvent the voter-approved city charter in an effort to place administrative control over the city’s top staff at the discretion of the City Council, versus in the hands of the city’s full-time manager where it belongs (“Scappoose limits city manager authority,” Dec. 20).

The council backtracked on Thursday following an early morning meeting that was not publicly advertised. We learned of the meeting late in the afternoon on Dec. 31. A result of that meeting is that the city manager needs to seek the council’s opinion about hiring and firing, but is not bound by that opinion.

After city attorney Ron Guerra provided council with his opinion that the earlier-approved ordinance change was not legal per the city charter, the council terminated the contract with Guerra following a closed-door meeting. The reason? According to Councilor Barbara Hayden, the council is not obligated to provide its reasoning for such decisions. It will be interesting to see if voters agree with her if she comes up for re-election later this year.

While we can appreciate limiting staff oversight authority as it is entrusted with a temporary, interim city manager, the language Councilor Jason Meshell introduced and that the council approved Dec. 16 would also have limited the authority of future permanent, full-time city managers to hire and fire staff. Meshell’s first consideration was to alter the city charter, though when he discovered it was not in the council’s legal authority to do so, he proposed amending a city ordinance to provide the council with more power over staff. As we learned Thursday, even that effort was not legal, considering the limitations outlined in the city charter.

It should sound a discordant note that Meshell and the supporting councilors — the vote was unanimous — attempted to strip the city manager of hiring and firing authority at a time when high-profile investigations into Scappoose Police Chief Douglas Greisen are still unfolding. Why now? Why did the Scappoose City Council not want the city manager to be able to unilaterally hire and fire staff? As has frequently been the case lately, the council offered no explanation for its action.

As far as we know, there is no argument being made — and nor would there be supporting evidence — that former Scappoose City Manager Jon Hanken abused his authority to hire and fire staff during his decade of employment. Even when confronted with a complaint from a Scappoose police officer that the police chief mismanaged a February pursuit and ran a hostile workplace environment, Hanken didn’t dismiss Greisen — an action that would have been within his authority. After consulting with the city attorney and the mayor, Hanken instead hired a respected outside investigation firm to independently explore the allegations. When those investigations returned results not favorable to Greisen, the councilors assigned to the so-called Personnel Review Committee, or PRC, launched their own “investigation” into the events, ultimately concluding the first investigation was bogus. To the contrary, the PRC investigation — led by Councilors Meshell, Hayden and Mark Reed — was flimsy, unprofessional and reeked of good ‘ol boy nonsense.

And that brings us to the elephant in the room regarding this most recent council shenanigans. It is not possible to consider the council’s action without weighing its effect on two ongoing investigations into Greisen. Should the investigations return a negative result for Greisen, a scrupulous city manager would have little recourse but to discipline him. It’s hard to see the City Council’s most recent effort as anything other than an attempt to position itself to override any such discipline. There is a word for the type of practice the councilors have embarked upon: cronyism. And let’s not overlook the fact the City Council acted on this ordinance change in December without providing any public notice of its intent to do so.

At a time when the City Council is in the market to hire a new full-time, permanent city manger, we have to wonder what top-tier applicant would have wanted the job of managing a city with the knowledge he or she does not have any real authority over staff. The city government apparently favored by Meshell and the other councilors — with Mayor Scott Burge being the only exception — would have allowed department heads such as the police chief to cozy up to the City Council and effectively strip the city manager of the ability to have true management authority.

Hanken knew Greisen had final authority over him when he didn’t bury the complaints against the chief. He told us, as the investigations ramped up, that his attempt to investigate the chief and the actions he was alleged to have committed would lead to his termination. And he was right.

The message should be loud and clear for incoming interim City Manager Don Otterman, who said he wanted to get to the bottom of the Greisen investigations as a top order of business. “It’s an issue that needs to get addressed,” Otterman said in the Spotlight’s Dec. 6 issue. “I’m going into it with an open mind at this point. That’s probably one of the first things I’ll deal with.”

Deal with it if you would like, or if you can, Mr. Otterman. But if you do, don’t be surprised if the Scappoose City Council — as it has with Hanken and Guerra — deals with you in turn. In fact, it has already sent you a message that you are on thin ice.