West Linn spends big on council facilitator
West Linn City Council is no stranger to conflicts and power struggles. Meetings often end hours after the time indicated on the agenda and include testy exchanges between the five representatives.
Understanding its own difficult dynamics, the council hired a facilitator (who acts as a mediator and consultant) in January to help guide some of the conversations it knew would be contentious in the hopes of moving the conversations along efficiently and without drama.
These conversations lasted long enough to cost the City just under $59,000 in facilitator services from January to July.
Because he charges $275 an hour, the council decided to only have facilitator Sam Imperati help during discussions of the council rules and goals, restructuring of the city's legal services and executive sessions regarding staff evaluations. Each of these conversations lasted long enough for Imperati to rack up 213 hours of service to the City in seven months.
A pay statement from Imperati from April and March revealed that he often undercharges the City for his services by not counting each hour he spends working as payable hours.
According to Councilor Richard Sakelik, the council was originally going to have Imperati present at only a few days of goal setting sessions, which was estimated to cost $5,000-7,000.
Councilor Jules Walters said she requested to have Imperati at the discussions of council rules, legal services and evaluations because she knew they would likely lead to plenty of disagreements, but she feels differently now that they've continued for so long.
"Had you told me that by the end of July, we would still be continuing to have these discussions with a paid facilitator and a paid attorney in the room, I would not have suggested it," Walters said. "It's costing way too much money at a time where we can't afford it."
Sakelik feels similarly about the costs.
"I never endorsed anything beyond using Mr. Imperati for the goal setting, which he was effective to keep us in line and keep us focused because that's what a facilitator is for," Sakelik said. "As far as moving on to the council rules, I wasn't in agreement with that and neither was Councilor Cummings."
Even with Imperati's presence, meetings often digress to snide comments between councilors and an angry atmosphere.
"We're supposed to be able to have conversations and resolve conflicts and not spend too much time debating, really get people to consensus consistent with best practice and get on to the implementation steps," said Greg Leo, an Oregon lobbyist who does contracted work for the City of Wilsonville. "At local government, resources in general are scarce so you have to be super-efficient."
While Imperati often helps diffuse tensions among councilors at meetings, Walters indicated some of the council's issues might not be reparable.
"It's my personal opinion that there are pieces of the dynamics of this council that may not be resolved by a facilitator," she said. "It's our responsibility as adults and public servants to do the work of the city in a civil and efficient way."
Regardless of who leads discussions, the council frequently schedules special meetings and additional work sessions to finish the work that wasn't finished in its regularly scheduled meetings. Those who regularly attend meetings have found that doubling the amount of time allotted for each item on the agenda will more accurately predict the meeting's actual end time than the agenda's official schedule.
"There's an underlying lack of trust and that doesn't make it any easier," Walters said.
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