Measure 3-552 veils West Linn power struggle
Make no mistake: Measure 3-552 that West Linn voters will see on their ballots is not about money, righting a past wrong or providing balance — it's about power.
Measure 3-552 is an empty vessel. What will the City gain if Measure 3-552 is approved? Nothing it didn't already have. What happens if it is defeated? Again, nothing. City government roles will continue as they have, with City Council determining policy and city manager overseeing administration.
Currently, the West Linn City Council, per its charter, has total authority to appoint the city attorney. And per its authority to authorize the city budget, the council has total control over the budget allowed for legal services.
Read that last sentence carefully: If no money exists in the budget for additional legal services, it is impossible for the city manager to "create" a new legal staff position. This despite the fact that the councilors endorsing Measure 3-552 (at a taxpayer cost of close to $10,000) continue to claim that unless voters check the YES box on their ballots, the City's legal expenses will skyrocket.
Their published statement in the Voters' Pamphlet reads: "Every voter needs to know that the city council currently doesn't have the authority to stop the City Manager from hiring another separate staff attorney unless we pass Measure 3-552."
How eliminating the prior assistant city attorney position will impact City coffers down the line is unknowable. While cutting one FTE from the budget will no doubt save money, forcing City staff to use the increasingly expensive outside city attorney for legal questions formerly answered by the assistant will no doubt ratchet the costs quite a bit upward.
Which, really, is beside the point. The measure only addresses who has the power to hire and manage legal advisors (Actual Measure 3-552 language: "The Council may retain legal advisors as it deems prudent. The legal advisers report to and serve at the discretion of the Council.") Yet the current city charter already says "The city attorney shall be appointed and removed by a majority of all incumbent members of the Council."
Read between the lines of the measure language: "report to and serve at the discretion of the Council."
Exactly to what degree legal advisors serve at the discretion of the council is not defined.
Will the City Manager and staff need to wait for a council vote before seeking legal advise of any kind? Things aleady move at a glacial pace in Council Chambers.
The explanatory statement that accompanies the ballot measure is bolder about its power grab goal: "If passed the measure would clarify that the City Manager should coordinate with the City Council and the City Attorney on all legal matters."
This measure is skating into very dangerous territory, where the scales of control between the city council and city manager — you know, the highly qualified professional hired by the council to (according to a document on West Linn's website) "ensure that the entire community is being served."
That phrase is part of a larger informational document distributed by the International City/County Management Association regarding council-manager forms of government that also says (in other versions of the document used in neighboring cities but not in West Linn's version): "The council and citizens count on the manager to provide complete and objective information, pros and cons of alternatives and long-term consequences."
Evidently the majority of the West Linn City Council does not believe that it's their responsibility to hire a city manager they can trust to advise them.
West Linn City Manager Eileen Stein has indicated her displeasure toward a City Council that second-guesses and questions her every move and opinion, reminding them repeatedly that her job description allows her unfettered administrative authority over city operations.
A valid grievance. If our current council cannot get over its deep-seated distrust of city managers and work as a team with professional staff perhaps they should start over and move away from the customary council-manager form of government.
Because if this measure passes and the City Council continues on its current trajectory Stein may not be here much longer and it's doubtful the City will be able to recruit a qualified city manager willing to work for a council that works to wrest every bit of managerial power from them.
We get the impulse. A past city manager was viewed as power-hungry and unwilling to listen to citizens and the council. But nothing that happened in the past (or since she was hired) indicates that Stein is cut from the same cloth and it's wrong to rewrite the city charter as a pre-emptive strike. If city managers don't work with city councils in a collaborative way, the council can fire them. They are at-will employees. However, if city councilors get power-hungry and fail to work collaboratively, a recall effort is slow and costly (and never a sure thing).
So in plain language, what do you get if you vote yes on 3-552? Nothing you didn't already have, with the exception of handing control of every City legal issue to a dysfunctional council that takes a year to decide what other councils could decide in a single meeting.
A better solution than Measure 3-552 might be to consider whether the current legal representation is a good fit for West Linn.
Our city attorney has been with us for years but recent rate hikes bring him way above the average municipal services. A complete audit of our legal system — in terms of effectiveness, cost and meeting the needs of city staff and officials — might be a better solution than this ill-advised ballot measure.
Vote No on 3-552 and start recruiting among your friends and neighbors with average egos, high intelligence and a large degree of practicality for candidacy in the 2020 City Council election and return West Linn to a measure of sanity and respect.
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