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Mayor speaks out

St. Helens leader says he won't take pay raise;
questions direction of City Council
by: Darryl Swan, St. Helens Mayor Randy Peterson is a regular at the Village Inn diner on Columbia River Highway. Peterson says he is increasingly frustrated with the direction the city is headed.

Randy Peterson is a regular morning patron at the Village Inn diner in St. Helens, the city he has served for the last 20 years in capacities that include city councilman, or as in his current role as mayor.

A handful of other customers, all working-class men who also exude an unmistakable air of familiarity with the establishment, demonstrate a comfortable jocularity with the mayor, tipping their hats Peterson's direction on their way out the door after breakfast.

One of the men paused at Peterson's table to let him know his coffee tab for that day was covered, drawing a gracious nod of thanks from the mayor.

The Village Inn serves in a dual capacity for Peterson: not only does it offer a sturdy brew to start the day, but it gives St. Helens residents a chance to praise or criticize the city government outside of the formalities offered at City Hall.

'Most of the people I talk to are pleased with the city,' Peterson said. 'I think for the last 20 years or so, they feel like that.'

But the level of frustration is growing, perhaps none as much as the frustration Peterson has with his own council.

A recent council decision to operate as a commission form of government, accompanied shortly afterward by a significant pay increase for the elected councilors, are decisions Peterson has opposed. He has since said he's not taking the money, and will instead donate it back to the city's general fund.

'My intention is not to receive it,' Peterson said.

But there are other parts to his frustration, including rhetoric from some of the councilors that the November 2006 election was a referendum for change, a vote backed by the dissatisfaction of Peterson's constituency.

Peterson disagrees, instead making the argument that the vote was shaped by campaign levels. Councilors Phillip Barlow and Doug Morten engaged in strong, visible campaigns, while the incumbents did not.

Also there is the written recommendation made by the 11-member Charter Review Committee that has since been gathering dust after being formally submitted for the council's consideration in October. The council has the option of placing the recommendation, either in whole or in part, out to the voters.

Council disinterest with the recommendation since it was received more than two months ago sits uneasily with Peterson.

'If I had my way, we would put the charter review recommendation out to a vote, and we would see if there was a referendum or not,' Peterson said. 'Let's put it out there. Let them tell us.'

Compensation question

A clear dividing point between Peterson and the council is the mayor's opposition to the pay increase adopted by the four councilmen.

Rationalization for the increased payment, which is tied to the Columbia County commissioners' annual salary, is that a steep rise in councilor work hours is needed to accomplish city goals as outlined in a 2005 strategic plan. The councilor compensation package went into effect on a six-month temporary basis on Jan. 1.

The pay structure is thus: each city councilor will receive a base rate of 10 percent of a county commissioner's salary, or around $6,900 per year. The council president and mayor are slated to receive higher percentages, at 12 and 15 percent, respectively. On top of that, each councilor makes $75 per meeting attended outside of a councilor's base duties, which has been defined by the council, up to a maximum of 10 meetings per month.

'I don't think that's an effective way to spend taxpayer dollars,' Peterson said when asked about the package.

He has other points of contention, as well. For one, though the city modeled its stipend schedule from the county, its compensation committee has a key difference.

At the county level, the compensation committee is made of up of three people appointed by the county commissioners. The committee meets and then makes a recommendation to the county budget committee for what the commissioners should take home in pay and benefits.

In St. Helens, the compensation committee is made up of five people, including two city councilors. As such, only one of the appointed compensation committee members must agree with the councilors on a new pay package for it to come in front of the council as a committee recommendation.

A second point is that no meeting minutes were ever kept of the compensation committee discussions, a fact Peterson was unaware of until the new pay package, which amounts to around $17,000 a year each, was approved for the six-month period.

Huff, a former councilor who lost in the 2006 election to Morten, said that if the councilors needed the additional money as an incentive to effectively serve out their terms to the city, they should have campaigned with that message during the 2006 election season.

'If there was a spoken mandate for change, then there should have been a spoken mandate that they are going to want more money to effect those changes,' Huff said.

Contingency funds are expected to be used to meet the salary requirement; a move both Huff and Peterson said is a step backward, one that preys upon a budgetary cushion built up over years of scaling back during times of leaner fiscal outlook.

'There is money here because of the things we have done in the past to give us a strong budget,' Peterson said.

Huff agreed.

'Over the 12 years I spent on the City Council, we had to make terrible decisions impacting the lives of numerous people - not hiring, reducing, eliminating jobs - in order to maintain a viable treasury, and we did so,' Huff said. 'Now they have set up a system that raids the treasury.'

Seeds of change

The election in November 2006 resulted in a majority shift for the St. Helens City Council.

Three-way races played out with each of the three open positions. In the end, Huff and Youngberg, the incumbents for council positions, were defeated in their bid for re-election by Morten and Barlow, respectively.

In each race, the margin of victory was slim. Councilor Keith Locke retained his seat on the council in spite of the mayoral loss to Peterson of only 79 votes, and together with Morten and Barlow the trio forged a new council majority.

From the beginning there was tension between the new councilors and past council actions, in particular the decision by the previous council to move forward with a city manager government prior to a Charter Review Committee recommendation.

Peterson said he was most surprised how quickly Barlow, Morten and Locke moved to roll back establishment of a city manager government.

'What surprised me the most is how quickly they acted,' Peterson said. 'I felt they didn't give it a chance.'

Peterson and Huff said the move toward a city manager government was supported by the July 2005 citizen survey. In the survey, 424 St. Helens residents were polled about their satisfaction levels with the city.

The survey data is not explicit toward any conclusion. It does suggest higher levels of dissatisfaction in several realms, including city-to-citizen communication and city planning for future growth.

From the survey, the city adopted its Strategic Plan in November 2005. The top priority outlined in the plan is the adoption of a city-manager government. The goal, Peterson said, was to hand over the day-to-day administrative roles to one manager, freeing up the council to set policy direction for economic development.

At the time, the city operated as a commission form of government. Each councilor was charged with oversight of a particular city department, much as today. There were built-in restrictions, however, that handcuffed exactly how much authority the councilors had over each department head. Under today's rearranged commission format, the councilor's have direct supervisory authority over each department head.

Barlow said the current governmental policy is more conducive to the city's progress.

'I can say…I want to do this. And as long as it's feasible and we can figure it out, we can do it,' Barlow said. 'It's not a matter of micromanaging. It's a matter of being in the know of what's going on.'

Barlow said the autonomy of each elected council to decide how it wants to govern is a cornerstone of the electoral process.

When asked whether he believes the councilors are qualified to run the separate departments - police, planning, public works - Barlow, who has part in a family ownership interest in a St. Helens bicycle shop, equated the councilors' roles to that of a construction site general contractor; though a general contractor may not have the arcane knowledge of, say, a plumber, he or she is the primary architect for the overall vision and will know whether or not the water works when the faucet is flipped on.

'That's no different than what we do,' Barlow said.

But there is concern from detractors of that argument, including Peterson, that having multiple managers branching out into cross departmental matters is a recipe for instability amongst the working staff.

'I don't think that's an efficient way to govern,' Peterson said.

After ironing out the differences between former and present council actions, there has been headway toward achieving economic development goals. Most notably is the employ of an urban renewal consultant and the intention to establish urban renewal zones and projects for the city, actions Peterson has largely supported.

His sense from the people who talk to him on the street or at the Village Inn, however, is that the city is headed down the wrong path with its management format, the result of decisions he believes will backfire in the end.

'My sense is that they people are upset about it, and over time that's going to surface,' he said. 'One way or another, either through elections or directly to the council.'