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Half of those serving on four citizen advisory committees throw in the towel in protest of city manager's forced resignation

In a show of dismay and disgust over the forced resignation of former City Manager Greg Baker, two Damascus volunteer committees resigned en mass during the Monday, June 3, council meeting.

The entire seven-member code development committee, most of the committee for citizen involvement, plus two members of the city's budget committee resigned citing the City Council's efforts to pressure Baker to resign.

That's half of the citizen volunteers in the city's four advisory committees.

"You have brought shame, embarrassment and ridicule to the city," said Dean Apostol, who tendered the resignation of the code development committee during the time dedicated to committee reports. "I simply cannot trust this council to do anything right when it's done so much wrong."

During a hastily called closed-doors executive session on May 24, councilors accepted Baker's resignation as part of a negotiated settlement paying him $321,460 on the condition that neither he nor the city sue each other. It's the same severance package he’d have received if the council had fired him, including one year of severance pay, payment for the remainder of his contract through 2014 and a year of health benefits.

The move so outraged former city councilor Mary Wescott that she resigned on the spot. Another councilor, Jim DeYoung, who just began his term in January, also said he was considering resigning for not doing more to ensure that Baker was reviewed and evaluated as promised in his recently renegotiated contract.

Councilors rewrote Baker's contract in mid December, just before three councilors were preparing to leave and three new ones had yet to be sworn in. The new contract included a much more generous severance package for Baker, as well as a $10,000 settlement in exchange for him agreeing not to sue the city for defamatory statements made by Mayor Steve Spinnett.

The council in mid December also changed council rules in hopes of restoring civility during council meetings. Councilors also hoped to rein in Spinnett, who some found impossible to work with, by removing Spinnett's authority to create agendas for council meetings and giving that power to the city manager.

During Monday night's standing-room-only meeting, the council voted to restore agenda-setting authority to Spinnett in light of the city manager's departure.

But before the council got to that agenda item, volunteers resigned from 15 positions on three city committees.

"I no longer wish to support or be associated with this city council," said Sharon Huffman, vice chairwoman of the Committee for Citizen Involvement, reading from a prepared statement signed by six members of the committee. "The actions taken by the Council had no citizen involvement, no open voting, no explanations to the community and were conducted behind the screen of an 'emergency executive session.'"

Chris Hawes, who is committee chairman, also tendered his resignation from the city's budget committee, as did David Gleason, whose parting words to the council were, "You fellas really missed the boat when you voted to push him (Baker) out."

It's not the first time a volunteer committee in Damascus has resigned en mass. Citizen involvement committee members resigned in protest three years ago citing disrespect from then-Mayor Jim Wright.

"We're making a statement," Apostol said before leaving Monday's meeting. "We don't want to be part of this any more if this his how they are going to do business."

Hawes said it's a sentiment he hears often as volunteers gather signatures required as part of an effort to disincorporate Damascus, a rural community of 10,000 that residents voted to incorporate as a city in 2004.

Volunteers led by Hawes are gathering the signatures needed to place the matter on the November ballot.

The uncertainty of Damascus' future also came into play Monday as the council decided how to proceed with filling the vacant city manager position. Councilors unanimously appointed Finance Director Matt Zook as a pro tem city manager. He will serve for an unknown number of weeks until an interim is appointed. Meanwhile, a subcommittee consisting of Councilors Bill Wehr, DeYoung and Council President Andrew Jackman will examine how the council should proceed with finding an interim city manager.

Spinnett said an interim position makes the most sense as opposed to recruiting for a permanent replacement in light of possible disincorporation.

On Monday night, councilors also officially accepted Mary Wescott's resignation from the council. Applications for her seat are being accepted until noon Monday, July 8, and councilors will interview candidates on July 15.

How the council handled Baker's resignation and appointment of a pro tem replacement prompted DeYoung on Monday to file a complaint with the Oregon State Ethics Commission, which is responsible for investigating possible violations of government ethics and public meeting laws.

DeYoung said he was not consulted about Baker's possible resignation before the executive session in which four councilors voiced support for his ouster. A similar lining up of votes took place before the council appointed Zook as pro tem city manager, he said.

Before Monday's meeting, DeYoung said the mayor called him asking for his support in appointing Zook. When DeYoung didn't offer that support, he said Spinnett replied, "Well, I've already got the four votes."

"To me that's evidence of a secret meeting," DeYoung said.

As for the rule change allowing the mayor to once again set meeting agendas, two councilors voiced reservations about it. Councilor Randy Shannon said he'd vote for it with the following amendment: "except if the mayor slanders, libels or defames city staff and refuses to apologize, putting the city at risk of a lawsuit, the agenda shall be set by a councilor appointed by the council."

Shannon's motion failed.

"So it's OK for the mayor to slander and libel people?" Shannon challenged.

"How about a motion that councilors don't do cheap shots," countered Wehr, who initiated the council rule change.

In the end, Wehr's motion passed.

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