Appointments to Budget Committee spark heated debate
Appointments to the City's boards and commissions usually involve a quick discussion and vote, but a recommendation not to appoint either of two women applicants to the Budget Committee prompted a torrent of public comments Tuesday and a lengthy debate among councilors about diversity, equity and the interview process.
At the heart of the comments during the at-times tense conversation: Whether or not all applicants are given a fair shake, whether the same line of questioning is used to ensure uniformity and whether the City should apply an "equity lens" to the entire process.
Melissa Fireside, one of two women who applied for a seat on the Budget Committee, told the council that she felt some of the questions she was asked during her interview were dismissive and trivialized her experience and qualifications.
"I was asked by Mayor Studebaker if I 'even had any budget experience,' which showed me three things," Fireside said. "He didn't think I had the chops to be effective in the role, he never read my resume, and he didn't take the time to consider what this lack of preparation would mean to me, a woman, sitting before him in such a capacity."
Fireside — a professor of industrial psychology who holds an MBA and Ph.D. — said she was also asked why she would even want to be on the committee when people would be taking shots at her, be dissatisfied and upset with her. The role would be challenging, she said she was told; wouldn't it be much easier to just be a citizen?
"I answered by stating I had reviewed meeting minutes and documents before applying to assure I understood the scope and crux of this responsibility, and created an understanding of what the Budget Committee actually has the power to influence," she said. "I explained that my background as a professor helped me to consider, understand and honor the narrative of our community, and overall that I'd be so honored to serve in that manner."
Mayor Kent Studebaker replied to Fireside's testimony by saying, "I'm sorry you got that impression (that she was being dismissed). It's a false impression."
Many of the participants offering public comment Tuesday were high school students, who said they were empowered by a Citizen's View written by former Councilor Joe Buck for the Feb. 7 issue of The Review. In it, Buck questioned whether a City that resolved in December to be welcoming and inclusive for all its residents had passed up a chance to do just that by appointing a woman to the Budget Committee.
Lake Oswego High School sophomore Cameron Iizuka, who is also a youth member of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Advisory Board, told the council that diversity of thought would provide a more well-rounded discussion of budget issues that affect the city as a whole.
"My peers and I were quite shocked that there were no female nominations for citizen representation on this committee," Iizuka said. "This was especially jarring because our City's most important committee should represent Lake Oswego as a whole, not just a faction. Our community is more than men, and the Budget Committee should reflect this diversity. By shutting out female voices on this committee, our town would be condoning gender inequality."
The students all said they were concerned that not a single woman was selected for the seven citizen slots on the committee — the other seven seats belong to City Council members — even though two women had applied, including 2018 council candidate Emma Burke.
Burke said she was concerned about the process too, especially because recordings of the candidate interviews were lost in the transfer process from one computer hard drive to another.
"My issue with this specific appointment process has always been that because our interview recordings were deleted, the process should have been nullified and the interview process repeated for the sake of transparency and gaining residents' trust," Burke told The Review. "The fact that two councilors rubber-stamped nominations when they couldn't review our interviews causes discouragement for the future of our community's board and committee selection process."
Councilor John Wendland, who sat on the selection subcommittee with Studebaker and Budget Committee Chair Scott Havens, said each interview was conducted in the same manner and that the same questions were asked of all applicants. He said the subcommittee looked at each candidate's qualifications to find "the very best," but admitted that there was no "equity lens" applied to the process.
That prompted Councilor Daniel Nguyen to ask, "Well, shouldn't there be?"
At one point, Councilor Skip O'Neill questioned whether the council should consider applicants' motivation for serving on a board or commission.
"What if the individual for this board had an agenda, and was trying to get on the Budget Committee because they had an agenda, and the people we're putting on the Budget Committee did not have an agenda? How would you feel about that?" he asked. "You're asking us to put an individual on a board essentially to check a box so they can run for office at a later date."
That prompted another response from Nguyen.
"What's an agenda?" he asked. "I have an agenda, everyone here has an agenda, it's what we campaign on. To call someone's goals and priorities an agenda is a misrepresentation and incorrect, so let's get away from the idea that we don't have agendas."
Nguyen expressed frustration not over who was chosen for the committee, but for the process itself. He suggested a new process be created — something City staff is currently pursuing — that would ensure equity and uniformity in the way applicant interviews are conducted, and to make sure that interview recordings are made available to the entire council.
Councilor Theresa Kohlhoff agreed, pointing out that this isn't the first time there's been gender inequality issues with appointments to the Budget Committee. Kohlhoff said that during her run for council two years ago, a female committee member was not chosen for a second term despite the City's tradition of giving preference to incumbents who have served well.
"We had a process, it became deficient and it needs to be redone. That would be reasonable," Kohlhoff said.
Nguyen agreed, and after some wordsmithing, he put forward an amended motion to redo the interview process with the same candidates. That motion was seconded by Kohlhoff, but failed 3-4.
The Council then voted 4-3 to approve the appointments of Alfred Calabria and Charles Erekson and the reappointment of Steve Dodds, with Nguyen, Kohlhoff and Councilor Jackie Manz dissenting.
The council approved a resolution referring a Parks renewal bond to the May 2019 ballot with a millage rate of 24 cents. If approved, it would generate $30 million for parks improvement projects and land acquisition.
At their Feb. 5 meeting, councilors reviewed draft language for the bond's explanatory statement and ballot title. According to City Manager Scott Lazenby, the statement cannot use the word "renewal" despite that being exactly what it is; therefore, he said, it would require some creative wording so that voters understand that their tax rate wouldn't be increasing.
"The main issue was what if we attempted to keep the rate as close to 24 cents as possible. We can't do that exactly, so we've been on the conservative side, but we're confident it wouldn't go over 24 cents," Lazenby told the council. "There is no such thing, financially or legally, as a renewal bond, but the idea is that the rate would not increase."
The Council voted 6-1, with Studebaker dissenting, to approve the bond measure at the 24-cent rate and refer it to voters on May 19.
Contact Lake Oswego Review reporter Sam Stites at 503-479-2375 or [email protected]om.
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