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Group says city councilors snubbed agreement on historic City Hall; councilor asks for legal clarification

Willamette FallsAfter the relationship between the Willamette Falls and Landings Heritage Area Coalition (WFLHAC) and the majority of the West Linn City Council seemed to sour last month over a disputed agreement to turn West Linn's former City Hall building into a multicultural center, the coalition is now considering alternative sites.

WFLHAC Executive Director Siobhan Taylor said the coalition would prefer to proceed with the original plans, but that if the city doesn't stick to its word WFLHAC would plan the center elsewhere. She added that the coalition did not want to waste years of planning and thousands of dollars in due diligence work by abandoning the old City Hall as a location.

"It's a sad, sad statement about community and governmental overreach by a few members of the City Council in West Linn. We have tremendous support from Mayor (Russ) Axelrod; he has been stellar in understanding that West Linn needs a multicultural center," Taylor said. "(Councilor) Jules (Walters) has been absolutely outstanding in her support of our efforts and publicly stated she did not condone what Councilors (Teri) Cummings, (Bill) Relyea and (Rich) Sakelik proceeded to do at the last meeting with us."

At the council's most recent meeting Sept. 8, Sakelik asked city attorneys Tim Ramis and Bill Monahan to provide an analysis of the letter of commitment as clarification for what he called misinformation about the situation.

"I'd like the public to understand what clearly is the position, what the LOC really is, because it is a legal document that is still in limbo," Sakelik said.

For over two years, WFLHAC and the council have worked together on plans to turn the former City Hall and police station on the West Linn side of the Arch Bridge into a multicultural center to celebrate local art and history and provide community meeting space.

The building is owned by the city and has been vacant since the West Linn Police Department moved into its current station in 2014.

WFLHAC has long wanted to turn the building into a gateway to the Willamette Falls and Landings area, which the group hopes will soon be a nationally designated heritage area.

The city of West Linn signed a letter of commitment with the WFLHAC in June 2019, pledging $400,000 to restore the building and enter a partnership with WFLHAC for managing the center. However, after WFLHAC raised $200,000 and informed the city this past February that it was struggling to find benefactors to cover remaining costs, the City Council decided to increase its contribution to nearly $1.3 million in funds from a 2018 general obligation bond.

In July, the council discussed a new letter of commitment and lease agreement for the old City Hall.

Rather than letting the coalition manage the building, as was originally the plan, Councilors Cummings and Sakelik thought it would be more appropriate for them to simply be tenants of the building, because the city would be contributing more money to the restoration.

Taylor and and Jon George, tribal council director of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde and member of the WFLHAC, took exception to the councilors' interpretation of the situation and voiced their opposition to the council's new direction at the next meeting, Aug. 3.

George compared the West Linn city government to white settlers making empty promises to Native Americans in his testimony at the August meeting.

"We had an agreement, we had a signed letter of commitment, and it got stalled out and now, because it's expired, they want to tear up all the work that we've done, all the coalition building, community building, partnering and fundraising, and toss it aside," Taylor said about a month after the Aug. 3 meeting.

Sakelik, Cummings and Councilor Relyea opted at the July meeting to form a new committee to help the council decide the future of the old City Hall.

According to Taylor, WFLHAC is considering the Blue Heron Paper Co. mill across the river as a potential alternative site, as well as a few spots along Main Street in Oregon City. She also mentioned the coalition would be open to putting the center in Wilsonville, Canby or anywhere within the Willamette Falls and Landings Heritage area (which spans 56 river miles); however its preference is to be near the falls.

Taylor said the group had begun some conversations with these partners about the possibility of having the multicultural center in their jurisdiction.

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