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Both plans receive thumbs-up from West Linn City Council despite charges of favoritism

PMG FILE PHOTO - The West Linn City Council recently decided to move forward with a commemorative plaque and nature play area at the White Oak Savanna.Two recent West Linn City Council actions regarding a nature play area and a commemorative plaque at the White Oak Savanna have generated pushback from the community, with some residents and councilors claiming that the projects are a favor to friends of outgoing councilors.

The White Oak Savanna is a 20-acre nature park with trails on the hillside above Salamo Road, overlooking I-205.

At its Nov. 9 meeting, the council voted to move forward with plans proposed by the Savanna Oaks Neighborhood Association for a natural play area at the park. To finance the $428,000 project, the council decided to divert funds from three general obligation (GO) bond projects focused on park amenities along the Willamette and Tualatin Rivers.

On social media, some members of the community cried foul at the fund diversion, stating that the community was more excited for the projects focused on the waterfront than the savanna play area.

During public comment at the Nov. 9 meeting, Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (PRAB) Chair Stacy Epsteen pointed out that there are three playgrounds within a mile of White Oak Savanna.

"There is so much competition for scarce dollars that this would seem, in our perspective, to fall far down the list," Epsteen said, reminding the council that the PRAB voted not to recommend funding the play area or any other White Oak Savanna projects at this time.

A nature play area at the savanna has been on the table for several years. The project was one of many included in the city's Capital Improvement Program in 2017. These projects are funded through System Development Charges (SDCs), which are paid by developers when they bring projects into town.

In fall 2017, the city entered a contract with a company to complete the project, but could not agree with the contractors on how to move it forward within budget, and the contract eventually was canceled.

Two years later, the parks department brought plans for the play area to the council again. Despite widespread community support for the proposed play area, which included input from residents of all ages, the council asked the parks department to go back to the drawing board.

SCREENSHOT: NOV. 9, 2020, WEST LINN CITY COUNCIL MEETING AGENDA PACKET - Play area elements proposed by the Savanna Oaks Neighborhood Association for the White Oak Savanna include loose sticks, log steppers and climbing boulders.Longtime White Oak Savanna volunteers and Savanna Oaks Neighborhood Association President and Secretary Ed and Roberta Schwarz presented their concerns to the council during this meeting. They argued that some of the play area elements, which featured water, would be harmful to the oaks of the savanna, while other elements like drums and a xylophone would disturb the park's wildlife. They asked that the council instead work to "daylight" Bernert Creek, which currently runs under White Oak Savanna as part of the city's storm drain system. To daylight a creek essentially means restoring it to its natural state.

Despite testimony from former Parks and Recreation Director Ken Worcester explaining that the water features of the play area would be far enough from oak trees to not cause harm and that the drums and xylophones would be no louder than I-205, which runs right below the park, the council seemed swayed by the concerns, requesting staff rework its plans for the play area.

As part of the plan alterations, the parks department polled members of the community on new proposed elements of the play area. The parks board and council asked the community to provide their thoughts on a scaled-down version of the original play area plans.

Though the feedback from the survey generally was positive, city staff recommended the council not move forward with the play area due to the cost, a lack of SDC funds currently available, and the three other nearby playgrounds that meet the community's needs.

Though they had not been vetted by the community, the council also considered plans for the play area proposed by SONA. The plans from SONA include climbing boulders, stumps, benches, a horizontal log play area, loose sticks for building, a small amphitheater, an acorn run and a port-a-potty.

Because the available SDC funds were more than $200,000 short for even SONA's scaled-down play area plans, Councilor Rich Sakelik recommended diverting funds from the three Willamette GO bond projects. As SDC funds come in, they could be redirected to the GO bond projects, he proposed.

Mayor Russ Axelrod and Councilor and mayor-elect Jules Walters were not on board with moving the funds.

"There are going to be so many unhappy people," Walters said. "We're putting on hold or replacing these projects at our waterfront, which is something people have really been asking for."

Cummings thought the savanna play area ought to be prioritized as it had been delayed before.

She also recalled the apparent excitement of community members and regional leaders for the project at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the play area.

The Willamette GO bond projects, which Parks Director Ken Warner called the "heart" of the parks master plan, were approved by the council with a list of other GO bond projects in 2018.

Those three projects include new decking for the fishing catwalk south of the Arch Bridge and a riverside trail between the bridge and catwalk, a gazebo at Willamette Park, a new paddle craft launch area at the mouth of the Tualatin River, a boardwalk through the wetlands at Willamette Park, and a park on the Willamette centered on water-related activities with a roped-off swimming area, natural play area and habitat improvements.

These projects, which will cost an estimated $1 million, were scheduled for the next one to two years.

Warner is set to come to the council with a timeline for the White Oak Savanna play area project at the Dec. 7 meeting.

The plaque

SCREENSHOT: NOV. 16, 2020 WEST LINN CITY COUNCIL MEETING AGENDA PACKET - The West Linn City Council approved the expenditure of $3,825 for this sign to be installed at the White Oak Savanna.One week after the play area decision, at the council's Nov. 16 meeting, the council voted to approve another controversial installment at White Oak Savanna: a commemorative plaque.

Conversations about the plaque began in July when Sakelik proposed the installation of a sign at the savanna to honor the time and money Roberta and Ed Schwarz had invested in the park. He recommended the city spend up to $5,000 on the sign.

He later clarified that the sign would honor not just the Schwarz family but others who helped out at the park, though Councilor Bill Relyea said the Schwarz name should be placed at the top.

In the design proposed by Sakelik, the sign thanks Ed and Roberta Schwarz, Roy Kim and family, Trust for Public Land, Portland Metro-Nature in the Neighborhoods, Oregon State Parks and Recreation, city of West Linn, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, and countless individuals from West Linn and the Portland Metro Area.

Sakelik solicited a quote for the sign from a company in Florida, which showed the total cost would be $3,825.

At the Nov. 16 meeting, community members expressed concern about the sign.

During public comment, Drew Hanson said he was concerned about the city spending thousands of dollars on a commemorative plaque during a pandemic when so many businesses and residents are hurting financially.

He said the city was "wasting time and resources on a vanity project that doesn't directly benefit anyone," and recommended the money instead go to the West Linn Food Pantry.

Another resident who commented at the meeting called the sign "narcissistic."

Walters echoed concerns brought up by commenters that the Schwarz endorsements and donations to Sakelik's campaign for mayor might make his proposal of the plaque a conflict of interest.

Though he said he would need to speak with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission to say for certain, city Attorney Tim Ramis said it did not appear that Sakelik had a pecuniary interest in the sign that would qualify it as a conflict of interest.

Sakelik also denied a commentor's assertion that the Schwarzes name would be displayed "prominently" on the sign.

"The font is exactly the same for a whole bunch (of people and entities listed on the sign," Sakelik said.

His original proposal for the sign read, "In honor of Roberta and Ed Schwarz," and mentioned no other people or groups who contributed to the park.

SCREENSHOT: JULY 13, 2020, WEST LINN CITY COUNCIL MEETING AGENDA - Councilor Rich Sakelik originally proposed a sign to honor Ed and Roberta Schwarz and their contributions to the White Oak Savanna. "I can't think of anybody that can come close to the actual commitment that they've made, which is why I specifically wanted to earmark it for them because this is way above and beyond and the chances are we're never going to have another example of this in our city," Sakelik said at the July 13 meeting. "I'm looking at the money alone, $278,000 to the benefit of our city and all of its residents."

Walters and Axelrod said they thought there should be more of a community vetting process before the council decided on such an expenditure.

Sakelik noted that he asked the city's Arts and Culture Commission for input on the sign, but the commission elected not to be involved.

Walters also said she was concerned about previous comments Sakelik made about the sign thanking the Schwarzes not only for their volunteer time in the park, but their large financial contribution to the park. Not everyone in the city who has contributed to the parks had the ability to donate $278,000 as the Schwarzes had, she said.

In the end, the council voted 4-1 to purchase and install the sign as soon as possible, with Walters providing the only "no" vote.

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