A trust betrayed
During Woodburn's City Council meeting Aug. 31, a majority of our city councilors issued a vote of no-confidence in Mayor Eric Swenson.
This vote was factually reported on by the Woodburn Independent. However, while factual, the story did not adequately capture the depth of distress and betrayal individual councilors felt regarding our mayor's behavior — specifically, concerning his secret, behind-the-scenes involvement in the decision to locate a COVID-19 isolation facility at the Super 8 Hotel in Woodburn.
To adequately understand why the no-confidence vote was taken and why a council majority agreed, one must be aware of what your councilors recently discovered through sworn depositions from Marion County managers:
• Without council or city staff knowledge, Mayor Swenson made a telephone call to the operator of the Super 8 on April 6 and inquired about using his hotel as a COVID-19 isolation facility.
The operator agreed it would be possible and confirmed their conversation in an email to the mayor. This email was only discovered through a legal filing, it was not forthcoming from the mayor.
• The mayor never investigated whether an isolation facility was permitted by Woodburn development ordinances — our zoning laws — to operate in a hotel.
• During a meeting with the Marion County Health Department and other managers on May 27, Mayor Swenson suggested that the county would find a willing operator for an isolation facility at the Super 8, as he had already confirmed that willingness.
• City staff and councilors only became aware of this offer on June 16 during a phone call from Marion County confirming that their contract with the Super 8 was about to take effect.
• Twenty days elapsed during which the mayor remained silent, allowing the contract negotiation to proceed in secret.
• This COVID-19 isolation facility could not have been placed in a more dangerous location within Woodburn. People age 60 and older account for 18.7% of the COVID-19 cases and 92.9% of the deaths. The Super 8 is located across from Senior Estates, a community of 1,510 senior-restricted homes and within 250 feet of hundreds of senior citizens living in three different age-restricted apartment complexes, nursing homes with Alzheimer's memory care units and a medical facility.
• Prisoners released early from Oregon's state penitentiary, county jails and residents of other counties also will be eligible to locate at the Super 8.
• No safety plan exists to prevent an isolated person, possibly while infected, from leaving the Super 8 and entering our community.
• The city has sued Marion County to prevent operation of the Super 8 as a COVID-19 isolation facility, because the county has deliberately violated our zoning laws. As your council, we are obligated to enforce our laws. This lawsuit is currently progressing through Circuit Court.
• This lawsuit might have been avoided had councilors and staff known about the behind-the-scenes negotiation our mayor was involved in.
• During our July 13 City Council meeting's open session, the mayor was asked directly what the extent of his involvement was in the siting of the isolation facility in Woodburn. The mayor denied he was involved in recommending that site.
• This is an issue of accountability. The mayor does not make policy, only the City Council makes policy. The council was kept in the dark while our mayor, in the fashion of a cavalier, attempted to make policy by means other than serious debate and agreement.
I close by expressing my sentiment of personal betrayal, and I do so with a heavy heart.
The mayor and I shared three conversations, one each in June, July and August. During each conversation I asked Mayor Swenson what his role was in siting the isolation facility at the Super 8. Each time he denied to me that he was involved.
Our council, city attorney and staff only learned differently, when we filed the lawsuit, because the depositions of Marion County health officials and other managers revealed our mayor's secret involvement.
An involvement, I suggest, he intended to remain secret.
Robert Carney represents Ward III in Woodburn and is the president of the Woodburn City Council.
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