Woodburn City Council ditches agenda, criticizes mayor
Two items were on the Woodburn City Council's Monday, Aug. 31, work-session meeting agenda: a utility services ordinance and the city's emergency operations center.
Neither topic was addressed.
Barely a minute into the meeting, Councilor Sharon Schaub moved to have the council take a no-confidence vote on Mayor Eric Swenson. The ensuing discussion lasted more than one-and-a-half hours and ultimately ended with a 5-1 no-confidence vote, with Councilor Debbie Cabrales voting against it.
Councilor Eric Morris, who is running for mayor against Swenson, seconded the motion and furnished a PowerPoint report he prepared that was focused in part on Swenson's meeting with the North Marion Action Committee, a group consisting of multiple entities that focuses on pandemic issues and community safety.
According to the Marion County litigation defense report, a 234-page county defense argument countering the city's lawsuit surrounding a state-mandated COVID-19 isolation center, Swenson mentioned the Super 8 Hotel in one comment at a NMAC meeting. The debate surrounding that pushed the council meeting off its agenda as the panel became absorbed by the no-confidence debate.
Marion County is leasing the Woodburn Super 8 Hotel and using it as an isolation center for county residents who have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus and need to isolate for 14 days but are not equipped to do so at home.
After the county leased the facility, the city of Woodburn subsequently filed litigation against the county, claiming the isolation center usage violates city codes.
Morris' report alleges Swenson neglected to communicate information to the council and city staff, including information a county report said surfaced as Swenson took part in a call-in meeting with NMAC.
Morris was also critical of Swenson's involvement in helping to guide organizers of a local Black Lives Matter protest and a Father's Day Parade. He said the mayor had learned about the protest/march planning but did not communicate what he learned to city staff until the next day.
Swenson said, yes, march organizers contacted him by phone at 7 p.m. one evening, and he emailed the city administrator and police chief about their plans the following morning. Organizers worked closely with the police while planning that event.
Swenson added that he was not involved in the Father's Day parade planning.
Morris pored through a 234-page county defense argument and pulled an excerpt from the report on page 200 that said Swenson had asked the hotel owner about the possibility of renting rooms for farm workers who'd tested positive on April 6.
Swenson said he was inquiring for a person in need of isolation who had a hotel voucher from a nonprofit.
In another excerpt from page 6, the county report said in a May 27 NMAC call-in meeting the mayor mentioned the Super 8 Hotel and that the county may want to contact the owner. The report said: "Mayor Swenson told the call participants that he had spoken with the owner of the hotel and 'reserved' the third floor hotel's rooms ... He asked the county to follow up with the hotel's owner to rent these rooms for isolation and quarantine purposes."
Morris posted those same excerpts on social media roughly a week prior to the Aug. 31 meeting.
"In my recollection, in that meeting, I was not suggesting that the county have an isolation center in Woodburn," Swenson said. "I can surely tell you that [I] had not reserved the third floor."
Swenson apologized for any mistakes or statements he made that gave the county that impression.
Councilor Robert Carney said he believes if the mayor had been more forthcoming about information from the NMAC meeting, the city could have considered it before filing a lawsuit. That suit is scheduled for a Sept. 22 hearing.
Councilor Lisa Ellsworth said she felt the vote of no-confidence would be better left to the voters in the Nov. 3 election, but she voted at the meeting nonetheless.
Cabrales, who is familiar with the NMAC meetings and is routinely invited to them, said she did not recall hearing any discussion about the Super 8 prior to the issue emerging with the city council in June. She also felt the accusations levied against Swenson were minor when juxtaposed with positive elements he brings to the city.
"I believe in second chances; this (communication) was a mistake, but let's think about all the great things the mayor has done," she said.
Carney told Cabrales that she was "cynically used" — deliberately brought to the NMAC meeting because the hotel is in her ward.
Cabrales countered that she is part of those meetings because she is the director of a small nonprofit that works with farmworkers.
"The fact that you are saying that I was used is a slap in the face to me," Cabrales retorted. "I don't appreciate that; it's not OK … I was not used, Councilor Carney."
Morris portrayed Swenson as someone who is "wheeling and dealing and kind of doing his own thing" outside the structure of city government.
When asked about what a no-confidence vote meant, City Attorney Bob Shields explained that it doesn't directly affect the terms of service; the mayor continues to serve in office.
"… That part of it is a legal question. The rest of it is not a legal question; it's a question for the council," Shields said.
The Woodburn incident is not the only no-confidence vote that has surfaced during the COVID-19 emergency era. Oregon City also contended with the issue this summer.
On July 1 Oregon City Commission passed a no-confidence vote regarding Mayor Dan Holladay for "detrimental actions that have negatively impacted the city," according to the Oregon City city manager's report. A vote to censure Holladay preceded the action at the June 17 meeting.
Holladay had threatened to contravene Gov. Kate Brown's "Stay Home, Save Lives" executive order. The report noted that the Oregon City mayor's actions resulted in a letter from the state attorney general, and further noted that Holladay "violated the city's rules and procedures, soliciting private donations for a fireworks sho and made social media comments downplaying the significance of the death of Black citizens in police encounters and concerns about racial injustice."
The Oregon City Commission hired a third-party investigator to examine Holladay's actions.
Marion County notified city of Woodburn staff about plans to use the Super 8 Hotel for isolation and quarantine on June 16. The county's Board of Commissioners approved that plan on June 24 and began using it as an isolation center on July 1.
The county provided resources to its sheriff's office and contracted an outside security outfit to ensure a 24/7 watch. It also contracted with a specialized cleaning firm.
Following the announcement, a storm of concerns flooded social media sites and a protest attracting dozens of Woodburn senior residents took place in front of the Super 8, citing concerns that it would compromise the health senior citizens living nearby, the facility would house and release criminals and health and safety of people working in the area would be jeopardized.
As of Sept. 2, 13 people had stayed at the Woodburn Super 8, concluded their isolation and quarantine periods and returned home. County sources noted on Sept. 4 that there were no guests currently at the hotel.
To date, no issues have been reported stemming from the facility.
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