Effort to recall mayor, councilor progresses
An effort to recall Newberg's mayor and a city councilor is going forward after a group demanding change in city government has met the initial standards to take the question to the voters.
Accountable Newberg, led by outspoken council and city staff critic Rebecca Wallis, was successful last week in filing the paperwork required to mount a recall effort. The paperwork was submitted to the city by Wallis and her husband, Ewan, who is listed as chief petitioner.
The target of the group's ire is Mayor Rick Rogers and councilor Stephanie Findley, both in their first terms of office. Wallis explained that of the six-member council, Accountable Newberg had originally planned to attempt to recall three councilors: Elizabeth Curtis Gemeroy, Gene Piros and Findley.
However, Gemeroy was forced to resign as councilor recently after moving out of her district and Piros cannot be recalled because he has served on the council for less than six months, a benchmark set by state law. The three councilors not targeted in the recall effort are Patrick Johnson, Denise Bacon and Elise Yarnell Hollamon.
"Three councilors have been very supportive of taking the necessary steps to resolve the issues at city hall," Rebecca Wallis said.
Accountable Newberg, which Wallis characterized as a grassroots effort with a "large number" of members, is primarily accusing the council of failing to adequately take action to deal with a growing number of controversies in city hall, including a sexual harassment complaint filed by a city employee with the state, a federal whistleblower lawsuit filed by the city's IT director and a racial discrimination lawsuit the city lost last fall.
The group has called for firing Interim City Manager David Clyne and City Attorney Truman Stone, claiming the men are responsible for many of the city's troubles.
The group had also targeted Anna Lee, who served as the city's human resources director until January and had filed grievances with the city claiming harassment and retaliation. She reached a settlement with the city in January and has left the position.
"We've asked that city staff be held responsible for their actions or especially (the) lack thereof," Wallis said. "We've voiced our concerns only to be called 'cowardly' by the mayor."
The group's demands, given the state of the city, are concise.
"With all the issues current and in (the) recent past, there should be a unified council that says 'this is not okay' and takes immediate action," she said. "The public sees the issues, however certain members of the council are either blind to the issues or don't have the fortitude to make the difficult, uncomfortable decisions that is currently required of them."
Rogers countered that many of the city's long-standing legal and personnel issues have either been resolved or are in the process of being resolved.
"Third party investigations of claims of harassment have been ordered, conducted and acted upon," he said. "Council executive sessions on the performance of direct hires have been held. One lawsuit was settled by the city's insurer; two ongoing lawsuits will be resolved by the courts. The council has done its job."
He explained further that the council has "provided direction to and listened to advice from our interim city manager, who is this organization's chief executive officer," adding that in that analogy the council serves as the board of directors that hires and fires the city manager, and the mayor is the board chairman.
An important distinction is that the council does not oversee city staff beyond the city manager and city attorney.
"The council does not, and by rule should not get involved in the day-to-day operations of the city," he said.
Rogers insisted the council has "performed admirably" and taken a different tack than what Accountable Newberg is demanding.
"Facing public criticism for inherited problems, the seven members … have chosen to move to resolving issues rather than falling into divisiveness, which often results in times of stress," he said.
Wallis said the sexual harassment complaint against the city, which the Bureau of Labor and Industries has yet to rule on, proved to be the tipping point for the group filing the recall.
"Sometimes people are just as culpable when they watch something as when they participate …," she said. "The mayor refused to take action and she was forced to get an attorney and report to BOLI. This is unacceptable behavior by an employer and we cannot allow leaders that allow sexual harassment in the workplace."
Rogers disputed Wallis' claim.
"When the allegations were brought to me in April 2019 an outside investigation was commissioned, was conducted and the interim city manager made staffing changes based on the information in that report …," he said. "This allegation is patently false and damaging."
Findley, whose term began in January 2019, said she doesn't understand why she is being singled out for recall among the council members.
"The narrative of the petition indicates concern with a unanimous voice by the council," she said, adding that the paperwork filed with the city said only 'Stephanie voted yes to hire an interim city manager that failed our city.'
"As I have not been contacted by the petitioners about it, I am unaware if there are factors not listed in the petition that account for the group seeking to recall only one councilor."
While acknowledging that under state law any councilor who has been in office for more than six months may be recalled, she defended her conduct over the past year: "I believe, wholeheartedly, that I have upheld the integrity of the office and I intend to honor this community and it's residents with any and all decisions I make while in office."
Findley added that despite the recall effort and the controversies swirling about in city hall, she remains resolved to serve as councilor.
"Conversations about the direction of the city have been overwhelmingly positive despite some very real and concerning issues that have faced us in the last several years," she said. "I believe that people are looking for the good and finding it while addressing the things we need to work on and the lessons that we have learned."
Accountable Newberg has until May 4 to gather the 1,495 signatures (Newberg has 15,588 registered voters; state law requires the number of valid signatures be 15 percent of the votes cast for governor in Newberg during last governor's race) needed to place the recalls on the ballot. As a special election it will not be tied to the May primary or the November general election; a date will be determined once all the criteria are met.
If the group is successful, the city will be responsible for reimbursing the county for the cost of the election, estimated to be $60,000 to $70,000. It's been a decade since the last recall effort was mounted in Yamhill County, which centered on Lafayette's city council.
Rogers said that despite the recall effort he has not lost faith in local government or the people he represents.
"The evening that Julia Martinez Plancarte was seated (on the council) showed me that this is a community and that this community cares deeply," he said.
A recent post on Accountable Newberg's Facebook page said signature-gathering stations will be "set up periodically throughout town" and the circulators will also be going door-to-door seeking signatures.
"City hall, including the city manager, works for the council and they in turn work for us, the citizens," Wallis said. "Government exists to serve the will of the people and uphold the public trust. This is not being done with our current council and it's time for a change."
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