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A Gaston resident who initiated the recall believed the city councilors would try to cut police services.

PMG FILE PHOTO: - A Gaston City Council meeting in June 2019.Initial voting results from a July 21 recall election will prompt the removal of two Gaston city councilors from their elected positions.

In June, a resident of the town with a population of about 700 acquired enough signatures from other residents to file petitions leading to the recall vote.

According to election results acquired by the city July 29, 55% of people voted to remove city councilors Sarah Branch and Suzy Whittaker. Only 123 people voted in the recall election.

Margaret Bell, Gaston's former city recorder and the filer of the petitions, says she wanted to remove the city councilors from their positions after the city's budget committee meetings got contentious.

Bell, who is a member of the budget committee, says Branch and Whittaker wanted to cut police services the city receives through a contract with the Washington County Sheriff's Office, among other concerns.

The city councilors, however, who also sit on the budget committee, say they only wanted to review the policing contract as part of normal budgetary due diligence and were never committed to cutting policing services, as Bell perceived.

The budget committee finalized a proposed city budget that maintained the current policing service level before the recall petitions were certified with the city.

Gaston, 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 was set to expire in July, and the cost for the service was expected to increase from $11,900 to $12,100 per month. At the previous cost, the contract accounted for 42% of the city's general fund.

In an interview Thursday, July 30, Bell said even though the city councilors were in favor of maintaining the current policing service level by the end of budget discussions, she still thinks the recall was justified.

"I think it's a positive vote for the police services that we have," Bell said. "I think I afforded the community an opportunity to relook at what was going on with city councilors, but, you know, I don't think it makes me happy. It probably makes me sad that I felt there was a necessity to do a recall."

She believes Branch and Whittaker would have tried to cut police services in the future based on comments they made on social media, Bell said.

Branch and Whittaker were not immediately available Thursday to comment on the results of the recall election.

The city councilors previously defended themselves by saying they never actually proposed cutting police services. They wanted to evaluate every budget item, including the police contract, to see if savings could be made, they said.

They added that the city was in need of hiring a public works employee, and with an already tight budget, they needed to look for savings, which were found elsewhere without cutting police services.

In a June interview, Branch said she thought the recall effort was motivated by a "personal vendetta" against Whittaker and her, noting she has had disagreements in the past with other city officials. She said 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's terms were both set to expire at the end of 2022.

Gaston City Recorder Wenonah Blanchette was not immediately available for comment Thursday.

In an email Wednesday, Blanchette said she would contact the city attorney for more specific information about next steps such as when the council will fill the vacancies.

Twelve ballots cast in the recall couldn't be certified and counted by the Washington County Clerk, according to the election results. Branch was recalled by 11 votes; therefore, if all 12 uncounted ballots contained votes in opposition to her recall, she would have maintained her position by one vote.

Ballots in favor of recalling Whittaker made a 13-vote majority.

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