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An exodus of leaders

Councilor recall effort will culminate with vote Thursday

Residents of Vernonia will make a decision this week on the future of their city government, but it could result in a depleted city council consisting of the mayor and one councilor.

A months-long leadership struggle within the city will culminate Thursday, Aug. 4, in a recall vote of two city councilors, Willow Burch and Marilyn Nicks. The election comes about two months after residents voted to recall Kevin Hudson from his position as city councilor.

Within Vernonia, many residents view the recall efforts as fallout resulting from an Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training investigation into Vernonia police Sgt. Michael Kay, who investigators from the state say lied to his superiors and misidentified his K-9 certification. He was fired in June.

An exodus of leaders

Since the politically charged investigation started last spring, Vernonia has lost its interim city administrator (since replaced), its interim chief of police (who returned to his previous rank of sergeant), one city councilor and, eventually, Kay. It's led some Vernonia residents to wonder whether the city is losing the energy and goodwill it received in the wake of the 2007 flood that devastated the town.

'We've lost six months to a year of momentum (in the city),' said Brad Curtis, a business owner and member of the city's economic development committee.

'I'm really shocked,' he added, saying the shake-up could affect the city's planned Rose Avenue project, a combination health center, food bank and senior center. 'We were riding a wave there for a while.'

The recall election is a result of a decision Burch, Nicks and Hudson made in May to fire interim City Administrator Bill Haack, who had the support of many members of the city's business community.

Haack's decision to assist DPSST in the Kay investigation drew rebukes from the three councilors, who supported the officer.

Haack, who now works as the interim emergency management director for Columbia County, chalks up his firing to the 'volatile' nature of small town governance. He said he wants the city to get back on track.

Embattled councilors stand by actions

Vernonia real estate agent Sharon Bernal is behind the recall campaign. Burch and Nicks have created an unnecessary crisis and upheaval at Vernonia's expense, she said.

Reached by phone, Burch declined to comment on the recall, but did say she feels the press has misconstrued her actions.

Nicks said she wants the city to prosper but declined to comment further.

'I just want what's best for Vernonia,' Nicks said.

In their ballot statements, Burch and Nicks explain in greater detail their positions, however. Both indicate that Haack performed unauthorized actions while he was interim city administrator and deliberately misled city councilors.

'If I'm guilty of anything it is inexperience dealing with such deep-seated dishonesty and unbelievable bullying,' Burch wrote.

Nicks wrote that she deplores the 'hype and hysteria that's brought division and made city business difficult.'

City receives millions in government aid

In the four years since the Nehalem River crested and Vernonia flooded - the second 500-year flood in 11 years - the city has received more than $16 million in state and federal aid, an equivalent to $7,000 per resident. The citizens of the city, too, have chipped in, voting overwhelmingly in favor of a 2009 bond worth $13 million.

Most of the money will go toward building an all-encompassing, $38 million school facility on a hill above the city's flood plain. Other plans, however, call for the development of the Rose Avenue project and the creation of the Vernonia Thermal Energy Center.

When the city broke ground on the new school facility late last year, Vernonia was heralded as a success story in some circles - a small town, ravaged by nature, whose citizens united to keep basic services in place.

But Curtis, the owner of Photo Solutions, worries that the city's narrative may be shifting due to the negative attention.

'We had some good traction there for a while, and this doesn't put a very good spin on things,' Curtis said

Haack may be back

One result of the recall could be a return of Haack as the city's administrator.

Haack interviewed for the position in June and told The Spotlight he would gladly accept the job if the city council offered it to him

That will depend on the recall election, though. If Burch and Nicks are voted out of office, Mayor Josette Mitchell and Councilor Randy Parrow will be responsible for rebuilding city council.

The council would then hire a long-awaited, full-time city administrator.