'Dysfunction,' long hours among factors that kept residents away from West Linn council race

TIDINGS PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Some residents — and even members of the City Council — say long and contentious meetings soured them on running for election. The city councilor sees all of the rancor on social media, and wonders why so few of those commenters decided to do something about their frustrations.

The mayor sees the potential for a positive spin — perhaps the community is satisfied?

The resident sees the consequences of a volunteer position morphing into what is seemingly a full-time job.

And the outgoing councilor? Well, she's seen quite enough.

A wave of surprise swept through West Linn when an Aug. 30 deadline passed and just two people — Jules Walters and Bill Relyea — had filed to run for City Council. In a city known for fiery election seasons that have seen everything from arguments between neighbors to election violation complaints in recent years, the race for two open seats was all but decided before the first campaign sign could be hammered into the grass.

So what happened? Why did both incumbents — City Council President Brenda Perry and City Councilor Bob Martin — decide to vacate their seats after one term? And why, in a city of over 26,000 people, are only two people willing to join the other three councilors on the dais?

The answers predictably vary depending on who you ask. But several overarching themes have emerged as West Linn leadership once again finds itself at a crossroad.

'People don't want to have to deal with it'

After announcing in May that she would not seek re-election — citing a desire to travel and spend more of her retirement with her family — Perry asked four people if they might be interested in running for her seat.

None of them were interested.

"What I heard from a lot of people who considered it is reticence because of the way the council is, and some of the conflicts and issues they might have to deal with in the next few years — do they really want to tie up their lives in something like this?" Perry said. "They just don't want to get into this — the long, argumentative meetings and just the way things are done right now."

While there have been flashes of productivity — most notably the ushering of a $20 million general obligation (GO) bond that was approved in May and will fund a number of large scale improvement projects — challenges and disagreements have continued to pile up. Martin, who has often served as a tie-breaking vote on contentious matters, stepped away for several months in the midst of an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment (he was ultimately cleared by an outside investigator). Meanwhile, over the course of many meetings that lasted well into the night, the remaining councilors found themselves at odds on matters related to the bond as well as parking problems at West Linn High School and the continuing debate over how the City organizes its legal services.TIDINGS FILE PHOTO - Some community members were particularly frustrated during council debates about parking at the high school this summer.

Arguments have tended to pit Axelrod and Perry on one side and Councilors Rich Sakelik and Teri Cummings on the other. However, Perry said she is not aligned with Axelrod on every issue, while others — who she did not name — agreed on almost everything.

"There's one particular faction that's formed (on the council), which is frustrating," Perry said. "It's pretty obvious that even though Russ and I ran together (in 2014), we're not a team on this. ... (There are areas) where you have a definite faction, and it's frustrating.

'Some councilors are very hard to corral'

Resident and community volunteer David Baker, who has been a frequent attendee at council meetings, agreed with Perry's assessment.

"I think part of it is people are concerned about what environment they'd be stepping into," Baker said. "It's dysfunctional and difficult to get things done."

Sakelik said it was possible that the dynamic on the council pushed people away from running, but added that a healthy council should have disagreements.

"A good council is going to have dissenting views, and so we discuss it," Sakelik said. "Yes, sometimes we could be more calm about it ... but some issues can get heated, and people have different perspectives.

"What I show to the public in council meetings, I try to keep it as a standard — I don't think you've ever seen me get up and yell."

Axelrod agreed that it was important for council meetings to foster healthy debate. He added that prior councils, in his eyes, did not adequately discuss issues.

"Our council is talking about issues, and I think that's very important," Axelrod said. "Some of the issues we've been looking at are not easy. We have taken the time to actually talk about them, and I commend our council for that to some regard."

However, Axelrod also admitted that he may make more of an effort to rein in long-winded discussions in the future.

"I've had my frustrations with it too — particularly how some issues keep getting recycled and recycled; a councilor won't accept a past decision and move on," he said. "I think it does bog us down. It bogs down our process and the spirit of working together and moving things forward."

Full-time volunteers?

Sakelik, who is retired, estimated that he spends between 40 and 50 hours each week in his work as a councilor. Martin, Cummings and Perry are also retired and known for putting in long hours for the City. Axelrod, perhaps the busiest of the bunch as far as City work, is the only councilor who isn't retired — and he said he's had to turn down jobs for his consulting firm because of his commitments as mayor.

"I can't market (my business) as being available at a moment's notice," he said. "It's really impacted me and my family in terms of our income."

Prospective candidates — particularly those with young families and burgeoning careers — look at the weekly commitments and five-hour evening meetings and feel that they simply don't have the time, according to resident Joe Durbin.

"One of the problems with West Linn is, if you look at who is on the council by demographic and where they are in life, it's typically retired people," said Durbin, who attended a number of meetings this year to speak about the WLHS parking issue. "They have time to do this volunteer job and still have their bills paid. West Linn is full of a bunch of families, and we're not getting represented at all. ... You should be able to do that volunteer position with a few hours per week."

"It's a big time commitment — that's part of the issue," Baker said. "And folks are really busy with balancing families and working ... We have a council of the same ilk (being mostly retired residents). I think that's resulted in a disconnect."

Perry has been particularly frustrated with the length of meetings, and recently told her fellow councilors that she would no longer stay in council chambers past 10 p.m. During one meeting this summer, she stayed true to that promise and walked out when the clock struck 10.

"I've said to the rest of the council, 'We can't do this,'" she said. "We need to have one round for councilors to give their opinion (on an issue). If we have to put a clock on, put a clock on."

Perry has also worried that, in treating their roles like full-time jobs, councilors are delving too deep into matters that should be handled by professional City staff.

"We need to do more support of the staff and less of the nitpicking," Perry said. "I don't want to lose (City Manager) Eileen (Stein) because of too much nitpicking."

"There's a tendency for micromanaging," Baker agreed.

But Axelrod pointed out that prior councils took the opposite approach — and in his mind the City suffered.

"Maybe we're trying to do more as a council than some councils in the past — past councils have allowed staff to do more," he said. "There's a balance there that you have to reach, too, that's important. You have to be engaged to some level and can't allow staff to do all things.

"There's a fine line here because people criticize me when I don't do something, but if I take a little more aggressive role, I get criticized for overreaching."

Walters, who entered the race in July and specifically cited her desire to represent younger families like hers, said she was able to run "because right now I'm in a place personally and professionally where I can carve out the time to serve."

She hoped to find someone else of a similar ilk who could run alongside her — to no avail.

"The current state of the council is not feasible for people working hard, commuting, trying to take care of everything," Walters said.

The way forward

The council dynamic is sure to see drastic change next year, when the two new councilors are sworn in. Axelrod, for his part, did not necessarily interpret the lack of candidates as a sign of trouble.

"It could be that most people are quite comfortable with the direction things are going," he said. "I do think there are a lot of things moving forward in West Linn. Usually you get a lot of people signing up when they are really upset about things."TIDINGS PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - When voters drop their ballots off this November, they'll only have two choices for the two open council seats.

Similarly, Relyea said he hoped that people saw two candidates they were satisfied with and felt they did not need to start their own campaigns.

"I would like to believe that they think I'm a good candidate, and the other candidate is good, and they didn't have to launch anything additional to make sure their interests were addressed," Relyea said.

Axelrod added, however, that he was disappointed to see the city deprived of a true campaign season.

"I like to see multiple applicants, at least enough to make it a campaign so you can force people to come out and speak about what they stand for."

Axelrod hoped to help organize a candidate forum for Walters and Relyea to share their ideas with the public. He also planned to meet with both candidates to learn about their visions for the city.

And Walters said she will not be resting on her laurels.

"I'm still going to be knocking on doors. I have campaign literature I'm going to be handing out and I'll be listening to a lot of what people have to say," she said. "I'm definitely not going to sit back and ride this out."

Relyea shared those sentiments and said he'd already agreed to participate in a candidate forum at WLHS.

When asked what she hoped to bring to the council, Walters' answer was telling.

"I'll bring efficiency, organization, some civility — all that's needed," she said.

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