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Board plans facilitated session to strengthen cooperation amid 'brewing conflict' among elected officials

PMG SCREENSHOT: JAELEN OGADHOH - Clackamas County's board will hold a one-hour meeting to strengthen cooperation amongst board members amid increasingly heated policy disputes.
Clackamas County commissioners on Tuesday decided to schedule a one-hour meeting to strengthen cooperation amongst board members amid increasingly heated policy disputes.

Commissioner Sonya Fischer first proposed the meeting as a "retreat" where the board would participate in facilitated team-building workshops to help the group "function more effectively" in terms of communication, synergy and conflict resolution.

"We have a tremendous opportunity to align on where our shared priorities are," Fischer said. "We need to be ready and functioning at our fullest potential. And I think that leaning in and really embracing where we have our commonalities... will really help us, because I think our constituents expect us to do the work that they have sent us here to do."

Chair Tootie Smith said she believed the board was functioning "quite well" and initially questioned whether a retreat was necessary, referencing the board's strategic planning retreat in late January that she said was "productive," yet "expensive."

"The best way for this board to communicate is to show up (at) your offices during days when we're not on television and walk across the hallway and talk to your fellow commissioner," Smith said.

Commissioner Mark Shull, who also opposed the idea, claimed that some commissioners had not maintained the standards of professionalism the group collectively committed to during January's retreat.

"Everybody put up their hand and committed to operate with compassion, efficiency, cooperation and respect, and that hasn't always happened, and it's because some folks have not made the commitment to do so," Shull said. "Another retreat will not instill these values in anyone."

Commissioner Martha Schrader suggested abandoning the idea of a retreat altogether and instead schedule a one-hour conflict resolution meeting limited to the board and select staff members, a similar format to the executive sessions the commission regularly holds on Tuesday mornings.

Smith expressed slightly more openness to the latter option than the former, however remained hesitant to commit, citing experiences with previous county boards where meetings that began as attempts at conflict resolution ultimately proved to be a step backward for the group's cohesion.

"Last time, it was a knockdown drag-out, pointing out each other's faults and we came away with more hard feelings than we accomplished anything," Smith said, adding that the board did not mend relationships for "weeks" afterward.

Tensions ran high among Clackamas County's current commission of five during multiple recent policy discussions, perhaps most visibly during a debate regarding Smith's proposed resolution urging the state to reevaluate future COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Even Tuesday's board discussion about conflict resolution strategies was immediately preceded by a dispute about proposed schedule changes which would, beginning Nov. 30, split Tuesday's usual itinerary of issues and policy into two segments, bumping policy sessions to Wednesday with the intention of creating shorter, more focused sessions.

Favored by Smith, Schrader and Shull, as well as County Administrator Gary Schmidt, the proposal was firmly contested by Commissioners Paul Savas and Sonya Fischer who both expressed concern as to the vetting process for policy matters selected for board deliberation.

Savas questioned the efficiency of dividing the workload of two meetings among three and was dissatisfied regarding the level of collaboration in conceptualizing the changes. Fischer worried the current lack of a vice-chair or a consistent group vetting process could lead to "disjointed" discussions. She also was concerned that the new schedule appeared to shorten the total weekly amount of dedicated board deliberation by several hours.

Ultimately adopted by consensus, the schedule change was highly controversial among the board — to the point that commissioners referenced it multiple times as a reason why conflict resolution was needed.

"Based on what I've heard from my fellow commissioners today regarding this slight schedule change, I don't see how a retreat is going to be any different," Smith said in reference to the previous failed attempts she had experienced.

Savas, currently in his third term on the county board, also recounted previous retreats in which the group at the time was unable to come to a consensus, yet he ultimately agreed that the current group needed further efforts to improve overall "boardsmanship."

"I think there's some relationships that are more strained than other relationships on this board, and that's certainly evident today, and it's been evident in the recent past," Savas said, referring to the schedule dispute as well as a noticeable spike in schedule alterations and cancelations in recent weeks.

"To say that 'There's nothing going on, everything's fine,' is not really the case here," Savas added.

Smith ultimately suggested moving forward with a one-hour session to be scheduled as soon as possible, complete with guidelines decided by the county's legal counsel, who Smith said will design and facilitate the meeting. Smith suggested capping commissioner comments to five minutes each.

"I don't want to be accused of anything or have it be perceived that I'm offering a heavy hand without my commissioners input," Smith added, rejecting accusations to the contrary and emphasizing the importance of engaging personally with fellow commissioners if there is ever any disagreement or confusion.

"Truly, I'm worried about all of you," Schrader said to her colleagues. "I don't like seeing people unhappy and I don't like seeing people mad at each other — and we're going to have to get along, because it's just what we do."


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