The right processes can get Gresham on track
For the past decade and a half, Gresham's city government has been a seeming island of calm in comparison to the cities surrounding it.
While other local governments endured controversy, infighting and continual changes in leadership, Gresham has benefited from stable, progressive leadership and a paucity of outward conflict.
All that came crashing down in the past week, when two of the people providing that steady hand — Mayor Shane Bemis and City Manager Erik Kvarsten — abruptly stepped down amid an astonishing display of municipal turmoil. Along the way, Police Chief Robin Sells also retired, but was walking back her decision by midweek. Underlying all of this turbulence were charges of systemic racism within city government.
One explanation for these extraordinary events is obvious. The entire country is in the midst of a national reckoning related to racial injustice as protests erupt nationwide over police treatment of African Americans. Those protests have reached Gresham in a literal sense — Bemis himself spoke at one this month — but also have prompted self-evaluation in nearly every organization over questions of equality and opportunity.
We don't have the inside knowledge necessary to evaluate whether the culture of Gresham's city government — or more specifically, its police department — is free of all racial bias. The events of this week, though, will leave anyone who cares about Gresham's future wondering how it will be possible to move forward.
When he resigned, Bemis said he has concluded he is not the best person to lead the city through the next few years. He suggested that Gresham businessman and community volunteer Travis Stovall be the next mayor of Gresham. It is not up to the mayor, or newspaper editors, to anoint a successor. Stovall will need to run in November and win voter approval. But we can say that Stovall — a successful African American business owner who has proven abilities to lead organizations large and small — has unique qualifications that we find very appealing for this moment in time.
An interim city manager also must be appointed while the City Council begins the search for a permanent manager. This already is a contentious issue, but whoever is appointed as interim should be just that — temporary. The matter is controversial enough without the council making a hasty appointment that could become a fixed one.
The city also must find a path forward on the charge of systemic racism. Gresham has done a great deal of work on equity and inclusion. The Police Department should move ahead now with reforms that have been identified and accepted by police. The equity and inclusion work needs new energy and leadership to ensure the city is able to make other reforms that might now be bogged down in deeply personal disputes.
Along the same lines, the City Council should commission a completely independent review of the city government's organizational culture and of specific charges of racist or racially insensitive actions. Such a review can give the public an unbiased assessment of the current state of affairs and what work is left to be done.
The resignations over the past week were unexpected and disturbing. Bemis may be right that it's time for new leadership, but the quality of that leadership is critical, and following appropriate processes is necessary to retain credibility. With the mayor leaving immediately, it is up to whoever is appointed interim mayor and the rest of the City Council to put those processes in place and reassure city employees and residents who are undoubtedly worried about Gresham's immediate future.
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