McLaughlin: Seeking accountability from the City Council
Do you remember lunchtime dynamics drama, when we were kids?
The popular packs always seemed to set the rules. You had your peanut butter sandwich on your lunch tray and you headed to their table. "What's up, guys?" And you'd get that special popular kid stink-eye, with the announcement, "Only cheese sandwiches at our table!" as they closed ranks, leaving no room for you and your peanut butter.
If only those dynamics were relegated to the pains of youth. As I've watched our Forest Grove City Council more closely over the last four months, I've been reminded of those youthful pack dynamics.
It appears that a majority coalition has quietly formed on the council since the passing of two councilors. Our city charter allows the council to appoint replacement councilors to fill the remainder of a vacant term. There is tremendous opportunity for influence in the ability to appoint councilors without requiring an election. That opportunity has been seized — Councilors Mariana Valenzuela and Kristy Kottkey, both appointees. The pack has been formed and they are setting the rules, and not the published council rules, while giving the proverbial stink-eye to those who see differently.
City councilors that are elected, not appointed, are elected as nonpartisan candidates. Ballotpedia.org instructs us, "The term nonpartisan may sometimes be used to describe a group or individual that does not promote a particular political ideology." And the National League of Cities, regarding nonpartisan council candidates, explains, "Political parties are irrelevant to providing services."
Why, then, did we find much of our City Council committed to promoting one political ideology, in the approval of a social justice mural, as city speech? Furthermore, did you know that of the 100 emails received by the City Council, regarding the social justice mural, 53 opposed, 13 favored and 34 were classified as "other?" Was the nonpartisan council accountable to the majority community opposition to dictation of one political ideology?
Perhaps the City Council became lost in the mural process in their attempt to adhere to their goal of delivering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in city services. A laudable goal. But one that should be free of political activism.
In watchful concern over this arising City Council majority embracing political activism, I found the most recent City Council work session followed by the City Council meeting, on Dec. 14, 2020, to be very eye-opening meetings. The work session was devoted to a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) presentation from the city's newly hired DEI training consultant, MIG. Great discussion was fostered. Definitions, thoughts, and hopes were shared.
Following the work session, the City Council moved into their formal council meeting. My eyes widened as the following events unfolded. Councilor Valenzuela, an appointee herself, moved, seconded by Council President Malynda Wenzl, to block an appointee from being confirmed to the Committee for Community Involvement. The appointee had submitted an email in which she was critical of Council President Wenzl. It was Valenzuela and Wenzl's desire to block her from volunteer service because of her words.
Fortunately for all of us, Councilor Tim Rippe reminded the council of our First Amendment rights to free speech, and this particular motion failed.
I thought back to the DEI discussion 30 minutes prior. Focused intent on inclusion, but you know what wasn't specifically mentioned? Diversity of thought and ideology. No one brought it up.
Immediately after sharing emotionally moving experiences and observations of exclusion in a DEI discussion, two councilors moved to exclude an appointee? Are they delivering DEI in city services, or are they dictating their personal viewpoints to us?
Democracy is all about different thoughts, ideologies, viewpoints, cultures, ways of being, etc. Do we want a city council that dictates ideology and leads with political activism? Or do we want our entire, diverse community to feel they are represented, heard, included, and not judged by a city council?
I believe we want an elected nonpartisan council that holds themselves accountable to principles of DEI that are truly inclusive of all.
Tammi McLaughlin is a Forest Grove resident and regular volunteer in the community.
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