Council quarrels over city attorney evaluation process, with Oct. 15 executive session at center of debate

TIDINGS FILE PHOTO - City Manager Eileen Stein says she has concerns about how West Linn's current legal services structure is serving the City, but the City Council is divided on how to address the issueThe Oct. 29 West Linn City Council work session ended with a thud — literally.

"We're done," Mayor Russ Axelrod said, his frustration evident as he slammed the gavel down.

By that point, the council was down to just three members — Council President Brenda Perry was out of town and Councilor Bob Martin abruptly walked out around 25 minutes before Axelrod adjourned the meeting.

The discourse that evening — and in interviews with The Tidings later that week — laid bare the ever-widening gap between Axelrod and Teri Cummings and Rich Sakelik, the two councilors he will be working with for the next year as their terms continue and two new councilors are elected to replace Perry and Martin.

This time, the infighting surrounded the latest chapter in the long-held debate over the City's attorney services.

On two different occasions Oct. 29 — during community comment section at the beginning of the meeting and the city manager report near the end — Cummings questioned the legality of a council executive session held Oct. 15 to discuss City Attorney Tim Ramis and a letter he'd sent to the City about a possible increase in his firm's hourly rates.

For more than two decades, the City has contracted its attorney services through Ramis and his firm, Jordan Ramis. An in-house assistant city attorney position was created in 2012 to augment Ramis' services, but that position has been vacant since attorney Megan Thornton resigned in May.

Cummings and Sakelik have frequently criticized this "hybrid approach" (having both inside and outside counsel) and voters defeated a 2017 ballot measure that would have, in part, formalized that hybrid model in the City Charter.

As one of its 2018 goals, the council pledged to "assess the City's legal services with the goal of optimizing quality and costs."

Ramis spoke publicly about the impending rate increases during a May 21 work session, and according to Axelrod the Oct. 15 executive session was called to discuss the next steps in evaluating future legal services after Ramis sent the letter about new rates (which will be increased by $125 per hour, according to Axelrod).

Executive sessions are among the few exceptions to Oregon open meeting laws, covering matters such as collective bargaining negotiations, real property transactions, litigation involving a public body and performance evaluations of executive officers.

Cummings, who along with Sakelik did not attend the Oct. 15 executive session, was primarily concerned about the fact that Ramis neither attended nor was personally informed about a meeting that was noticed as a performance evaluation (he was on vacation at the time but the City did notify his firm in advance of the session).

"Because an at least hour-long discussion took place while he was gone, and I was told it was because you wanted it that way, I think Mr. Ramis deserves the common courtesy of being able to listen to the tape," Cummings said during community comments after resident Karie Oakes asked about the executive session. "And I hope this never happens again. ... We might need to self-report this to the Oregon Ethics (Commission)."

The real fireworks took place during the city manager report later that night, when Sakelik suggested that the council use its Nov. 5 work session to further discuss the performance evaluation process for the city attorney. After some debate over that idea, Cummings once again addressed the Oct. 15 executive session, stating that the council appeared to have already begun the process of evaluation during that meeting.

The public cannot attend council executive sessions, but the City must provide notice of their scheduling and declare a purpose under ORS 192.660. In this case, the session was noticed as a meeting to "review and evaluate the employment-related performance of the chief executive officer of any public body, a public officer, employee or staff member who does not request an open hearing."

"(The performance review) already has happened," Cummings said.

Cummings then began reading from an article called, "Unscheduled Executive Sessions: Getting It Right," by former League of Oregon Cities attorney Rebekah Dohrman, which prompted Axelrod to strike the gavel.

"I'm going to interrupt you," Axelrod said. "Councilor Cummings, listen..."

"I've got the floor," Cummings responded. "Point of order, sir. I've got the floor."

After more back-and-forth, Axelrod allowed Cummings to continue, and the conversation ultimately ended without a clear direction moving forward.

Minor error or symptom of larger problem?

In an interview with the Tidings several days later, Axelrod defended the spirit of the process while noting that the City will self-report a "common" procedural error after speaking with a representative from the Oregon State Ethics Commission. According to Axelrod, the City erred in not asking Ramis whether he wanted the meeting to be in public or private.

"It's not a violation that requires reporting, but you can self-report and we are filing a voluntary report to the Ethics Commission on what occurred," Axelrod said, adding that he was coordinating with the League of Oregon Cities to schedule a future training meeting for the council on executive session law. "I was also told that this is the most common mistake made by councils everywhere — it happens all the time, they say."

Axelrod added that Ramis — who was travelling abroad at the time of the Oct. 15 session — has since been briefed on what was discussed at that meeting.

"Since this has all blown up, Tim has actually thanked me for having it in a private session," Axelrod said.

Ramis did not respond to a request for comment.

Cummings told the Tidings she was not able to attend the executive session due to what she felt was late notice and doctors' appointments she had scheduled in Wilsonville, but she would have refused even if she'd been free to attend.

"What upsets me about this — what is very, very concerning — is that the safety and stability of the city depends on a good working relationship between the executive officers (city manager and city attorney)," Cummings said. "We can't have this kind of thing — things happening behind people's backs."

Sakelik told the Tidings that he chose not to attend the session because "I didn't think it was appropriate that (Ramis) wasn't there."

Regardless of what happened Oct. 15, Sakelik is primarily focused on how the council will move forward with the legal services issue. He said the discussion shouldn't be rushed — particularly with two new councilors set to be sworn in next year — and should take place in a mix of public and private arenas.

"We need to do an evaluation of Ramis just like we would a city manager," Sakelik said. "We need to understand the pluses and minuses ... look at the financial aspects of how things have been run, and then we can have all the data we need to decide how to move forward."

City Manager Eileen Stein made clear during the Oct. 29 meeting that she had concerns about the current state of the City's legal services. When Thornton departed, Stein opted not to immediately fill the position due to budget concerns, and instead created an interim system that centered on a weekly meeting with Ramis to track ongoing legal matters.

"As I said in May, I was willing to go two or three months with an interim arrangement," Stein said. "(Now) I have concerns about the timeliness of service, and the city attorney is aware of it. There's still the position of assistant attorney out there ... the concerns I have are about the timeliness of service for staff, and I have a way to remedy that."

Cummings said she did not want Stein to hire a new assistant attorney, which prompted Stein to invoke Section 21 of the West Linn Charter. That section states that "No City Council member may directly or indirectly ... attempt to interfere, influence or coerce the City Manager in the award of a public contract or the hiring, discipline or termination of any personnel."

Cummings felt strongly that she was not violating Section 21, since she viewed the discussion as a matter of budget and policy rather than personnel. She also cited a provision that was added to Section 21 by public vote last year, which states that "This shall not prevent a City Council member from providing input to the City Manager relating to City business or the performance of an employee or department."

Fault lines growing

Shortly after the Oct. 29 fireworks, the Nov. 5 work session agenda was updated to include a discussion about "Guidelines for Civil Discourse."

In the days leading up to that discussion, frustration was evident from all sides.

"I take it very personally, particularly in the manner I was attacked by Councilor Cummings ... it was disrespectful grandstanding," Axelrod said in reference to Cummings' statements about the Oct. 15 executive session.

"I did let Russ know I wanted to talk with him, and asked him to call me over the weekend (of Oct. 27)," Cummings said. "I think I let him know that I was serious, we needed to talk, but he didn't ever call me."

Axelrod said he fell ill over that weekend and therefore wasn't able to call Cummings.

"I was in Eileen's office 45 minutes before the (Oct. 29) meeting, and Teri came into the office. She could have brought it up there, that there was an issue to address," Axelrod said. "But no, she chose to present it in the manner she did, which I thought was inappropriate and unprofessional."

Martin, meanwhile, said he left the Oct. 29 meeting in an effort to manage his stress levels.

"I'm really having to watch my stress, and as Teri (Cummings) was winding up ... I could tell I was reacting to it, and didn't think I should," Martin said.

Former resident and recent West Linn High School graduate Rory Bialostosky expressed his frustrations about the state of the council in a letter that he requested be added to the public record.

"What I saw (Oct. 29) was embarrassing and despicable, and it was a total breakdown of normal procedure in a city council meeting," Bialostosky wrote. "West Linn is the laughing stock of the state."

"I'm hoping this will be the end of this kind of stuff, and I'll be informing councilors privately about my expectations for civil discourse," Axelrod said. "I intend to march ahead with getting our work done. I hope the council will join me in working together as team."

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