Two Gaston city councilors face recall over policing dispute
Two city councilors in Gaston are facing a recall election this summer after city officials considered reducing policing services in the small town to balance a tight budget.
But the councilors in question say they're in favor of keeping police services at the same level after further budget discussions showed there was no financial need to cut police services, making one of the main purposes of the recall effort moot.
Voters in Gaston will decide whether or not to remove City Councilors Sarah Branch and Suzy Whittaker from office on July 21.
In Oregon, elected officials can be removed from office through a recall election if at least 15% of the electorate who voted in the last gubernatorial election sign a petition.
In Gaston, a town of about 700 people, the number of signatures required to trigger a recall election is 36.
Margaret Bell, Gaston's former city recorder and current member of the city's budget committee, filed Wednesday, June 10, the petition to recall the city councilors with 38 signatures.
According to the petition, Bell listed the city councilors' "desire to reduce police services for the City of Gaston from 30 hours to 20 or fewer hours per week."
Bell also stated the city councilors were "discourteous" to another city councilor and "failed to listen" to the city accountant regarding overspending in the previous budget cycle. Additionally, Bell said Whittaker failed to understand budget guidelines in Oregon law and Branch stressed the need to hire an additional city employee without defining the role.
The city, which straddles the border between Washington and Yamhill counties, contracts with the Washington County Sheriff's Office for a dedicated deputy to patrol the city 30 hours per week. The Sheriff's Office responds to calls for service in Gaston when the dedicated deputy isn't on duty, but response times can be greater.
The city's contract for the patrols expires in July.
Gaston currently pays about $11,900 per month to the county for police services, but those costs are set to increase soon. Starting July 1, the city would need to pay more than $12,100 per month in order to maintain the same level of patrol services. Police services account for 42% of Gaston's general fund.
Reacting to the recall effort Monday, Whittaker said, "I think it's pretty unfair."
She said a majority of the city's budget committee members, which include all seven members of the city council and five additional residents, were in favor of evaluating each of the city's expenditures, including police services, to determine if savings could be made.
"Our only intention was to talk and see if there was any way we could reduce the costs," Whittaker said.
Bell, who filed the recall petition, says Whittaker and Branch seemed intent on cutting police services to use the money to hire an additional city employee. She and her husband are both members of the budget committee.
"My impression was: 'We're going to figure out how to reduce police services.' That was it," Bell said.
Branch said she and other city officials recognized the need to look for savings to be able to fund several public works projects that have stalled.
An option to reduce police services never came to a vote because the budget committee was able to cut costs elsewhere, Branch said.
Branch said she thinks the recall effort was motivated out of "personal vendetta," noting she has had disagreements in the past with other city officials. She pointed out that other budget committee members were in favor of evaluating each of the city's costs, but she and Whittaker were the only ones being recalled.
Branch and Whittaker are the only women serving on the Gaston City Council.
Bell says the police services contract should have never been reviewed. She knew the budget could be balanced by cutting other expenses, she said.
Bell still supports the recall of Branch and Whittaker, despite police services being maintained, because she believes the two city councilors will mismanage the budget.
The budget committee and the council can vote to adopt the budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year with funding to maintain current police services at their meetings Wednesday, June 17.
"I fully support policing services and will be voting to keep the contract as it's presented to the council," Branch said.
Branch thought she and Whittaker made their support for maintaining the current service level clear in meetings before the recall petition was filed, she said.
"It's our job and our duty to look at every single line item and to ensure that the budget will actually work," Branch said.
She hopes voters will allow her to keep her position.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from Margaret Bell.
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