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Citizens for West Linn's Future advocate voting 'no' on legal services ballot measure, want voters to understand implications

PMG PHOTO: HOLLY BARTHOLOMEW - West Linn residents can vote on ballot measure 3-552 in the upcoming special election. A former West Linn city councilor, two former council candidates are attempting to stop measure 3-552, a measure on November's ballot that would amend the City's Charter to resolutely establish city council authority over the city's legal services in its tracks. The trio, Brenda Perry, Mike Selvaggio and Beth Smolens, have organized a political action committee called Citizens for West Linn's Future to oppose the ballot measure.

If the measure passes, it would amend two sections of the charter. "The council may retain legal advisors as it deems prudent. The legal advisors shall report to and serve at the discretion of the council," would be added to section 8 of the charter, which concerns the council.

The measure would also amend section 23(c)(3) to say, "The City Manager shall have no control, however, over the office of City Attorney or the strictly judicial activities of the Municipal Judge." Currently, this section doesn't mention the city attorney.

According to Perry, the interests of the PAC, go beyond the ballot measure, but, with the election just over a month away, educating people on the implications of the charter amendment is a priority.

In addition to three statements in opposition to the measure in the voter's pamphlet, the group plans to spread its message through signs and talking with West Linn residents.

Selvaggio, a state lobbyist and West Linn resident for the past eight years, said amending the charteris an undertaking that should not be considered lightly.

"I would really like to see more of an understanding about why our charter is set up the way it is and a more thoughtful analysis of what needs to be improved and why," Selvaggio said. "It's no small task to change a city charter and to do that for what may seem like reactionary reasons is concerning."

Perry expressed similar concerns. The former councilor said she believes this measure was born out of concerns about a city manager with too much power.

"(City Council President) Teri Cummings is still living in the days of (former city manager) Chris Jordan and his control and having an attorney in house that she cannot get over, so she has said, 'I will not have another in-house attorney where they can be influenced by staff.' This is not teamwork. It's not them vs. us," Perry said. "The staff are not working to damage the city or do something underhanded. Their job is to do the best they can for West Linn and this paranoia has no place."

Cummings — along with Councilors Rich Sakelik and Bill Relyea — have previously said the charter's current language around attorney services is too vague, leaving the door open for a city manager to hire other legal services for the city, such as an assistant city attorney or paralegal, which is what former City Manager Chris Jordan did in 2013.

Selvaggio said he thought the current measure was poorly thought out and could bring unintended consequences, one of which is the time that the council would have to devote to legal matters that are currently handled by the city manager and city attorney.

"The more that the council spends its time managing an attorney, the less time they have to listen to us and I didn't elect a city council to be the board for a law firm," he said.

The amendment is unnecessary, Perry and Selvaggio felt. They said other City policies, as well as the city attorney's contract, already provide the council authority over legal services.

"This (the charter amendment) adds nothing," Perry said. "All this does is cause a problem for staff having access to attorney services or allowing them to be an extra watchdog. How much does the council actually see of the work the city attorney does? They don't see the day-to-day work that the city attorney is doing."

Selvaggio is also worried about the impact the amendment could have on city politics.

"If suddenly the city council is able to direct the city attorney in litigation or bargaining issues, then there's going to be a huge incentive for people with interest in those outcomes to pay very heavily in the city elections and I don't think that's a good thing," he said. "I don't want our city elections to become referendums on how the city should negotiate with a union or who's going to direct the city attorney to get a PERS opinion in their favor."

He also explained how he thought the amendments could be detrimental to transparency.

"An attorney is not a discretionary position. They're supposed to interpret and follow the law. The more discretion you give the law, the less transparent things get, the more people get crowded out of the process," he said. "The city attorney is meant to be a referee. If a referee is being absolutely run by one of the teams, you don't have a transparent government."

Both Perry and Selvaggio expressed concern that the actual language that would be added and removed from the charter is not explicitly stated in the voter's pamphlet, a decision Perry called deceptive.

The pamphlet does state the language that could be added to section 8, but only explains the exact language that would be changed in section 23.

"If passed, the Measure would revise the language on limitation on City Manager authority to state that the City Manager will not control the office of City Attorney or the strictly judicial activities of the municipal judge," the pamphlet reads.

Perry and Selvaggio felt this explanation wasn't sufficient.

"Most alarming to me is that at no point did the city make any effort to send the actual text of what they're asking to be changed to the county, which means it's not in the voter pamphlet statement," Selvaggio said.

The ballot measure, as well as statements in favor and in opposition, can be found on the Clackamas County Elections website.


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