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A changing tide: paradigm shifts on the St. Helens City Council

by: Darryl Swan, With the mighty Columbia River framing the background, Doug Morten reposes on the balcony of his Grey Cliffs home in St. Helens. Morten, along with a majority of the St. Helens City Council, is delivering on a promise of change for the city.

The mantra heralded again and again this 2008 political season, especially at the presidential level, is one of change.

For Doug Morten, it is a familiar theme. After all, it is the same one he raised as the standard in his 2006 campaign that led to his election to the St. Helens City Council.

'When I was running for office, I put change all over my signs,' he said.

Since then, it's safe to say the 62-year-old retired art teacher has lived up to his promise, for better or - as his critics would say - for worse.

But as the seed of Morten's and the majority of St. Helens councilors' governmental system takes root, he believes its results will increasingly sway detractors.

It is a system based on the premise that the city of St. Helens absolutely and undeniably needs active participation and direction by its citizenry, not its bureaucrats, to be a success.

It is also a system that leads by example, with the first of many paradigm shifts taking place on the City Council itself.

'That is exactly what has happened - everything has changed,' Morten said. 'We want to make a culture of involvement, and I think we're starting to see that.'

Two of the more obvious, and more controversial, system alterations immediately pursued following the 2006 election included changing the structure of St. Helens government to include a more active role by the city councilors. Coupled with that was a later move to increase pay for the councilors, raising by more than sixfold the possible annual salary of a councilor to today's level at $16,000 a year.

When asked about the pay, Morten is blunt in his belief that a suitable, attractive pay is needed for the job to be done right.

'If you want a good product, you've got to pay us,' he said, unapologetically. Morten points to the strategic plan, the 2005 document that outlines priorities and goals for the city, as the road map for the city to achieve new prosperity. Though while the councilors are vehicles to follow that map, they're not going to make it far without gas in the tank. 'I've had to figure out a way to get people to respond to what we needed to do.'

On an economic scale, Morten said that the money the city is saving by not hiring a city manager, a figure he places around $50,000, covers the commissioner's pay increase. And instead of using the city administrator to manage the government, part of his vision is to mold that position into the lead grant-writing department for the city, a function largely absent at present. If successful, new dollars should flow into St. Helens for new projects.

To be fair, Morten said he hasn't kept any of the money he had received as a city councilor, instead directing it to scholarships and charitable activities of his choice.

Both changes, the government and pay, were strongly supported, even initiated, by Morten, placing him and other councilors - notably Phillip Barlow, Keith Locke and, after some convincing, Charles Grant - at odds with prior council decisions that steered the city toward a system managed by paid professional staff.

'If we went to a city manager, I think we would have abdicated our responsibilities,' Morten said.

What ultimately evolved is a system fairly unique in the spheres of government, especially for smaller cities the size of St. Helens.

It is a format that at its essence turns each department head into a top advisor to the councilor assigned to a specific department.

Each councilor has unilateral authority over his or her departments, a commission-type system, though the ability to hire and fire personnel is largely an effort that involves the departmental head, councilor in charge and the city administrator. If the departmental head or city administrator's employment is at question, the province of hiring or firing falls to the full council.

'It isn't a matter of control. It's more of a matter of understanding, and in that way I'm more responsible to the people who elected me,' he said. Of the two personnel to leave the city since the government format change, both departed from departments - parks and public works - overseen by Morten.

The city administrator does coordinate the activities of all departments, supervises the administrative department, and coordinates the city's decision-making process.

Morten said the new system hinges on 'collaborative decision-making.'

'It's a collaborative way of working. It's team-manship, I think, at its best,' he said. 'If it doesn't work out, fine. We'll own it.'

Activist beginnings

Standing within Doug and Annie Morten's Grey Cliffs neighborhood home, itself a sort of Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired museum of cultural and contemporary art (including recent photographic montages of European cityscapes shot by Morten himself) located on a cliff above the Columbia River, it's easy to question where his motivation comes from.

His answer in a nutshell: 'I just keep finding problems.'

Other clues ultimately unfold, however.

Morten is familiar with the uncertainties that arise with industrial displacement, a hot topic even today as questions abound about the future of the Boise Cascade paper mill in the wake of its sale to a New York investment firm.

It is partially a result of those uncertainties that pushed him to try to redefine St. Helens and, to some degree, find in it an alternate identity that builds some slack into its historically ironclad link to the mill.

As a 16-year-old kid, Morten's father, who worked as an executive with the now largely defunct Pope and Talbot lumber company, was transferred out of St. Helens.

Morten made arrangements to remain in St. Helens until graduating from St. Helens High School. Then, as many of his friends looked to the mill for a stable livelihood, he said the encouragement of several key teachers influenced him to seek broader horizons.

He left St. Helens in 1963, the day after graduation. His reflection of that time is that the city was a boomtown, a kind of 'American Graffiti' landscape of teenage life, but one that fell shy of the amenities needed for his long-term aspirations.

Morten enrolled and graduated with a bachelor's degree in humanities from Oregon State University. He served a 15-month stint in the Vietnam War, going in as an Army grunt and coming out with a technician's position.

He took a job teaching art at Lincoln High School in Portland, where he worked and lived until his retirement in 2004. He started an international baccalaureate program for fine arts at the school, he said, and took the reins of a swimming program that he still supports financially through a scholarship in his name to this day. In fact, he also hosts a second scholarship at that school for kids who excel in nontraditional sports. He said he is today considering similar possibilities for the St. Helens district.

'I would like to start a scholarship there, as well,' he said.

Morten returned to the St. Helens area to renovate an ancestral 1889 farmhouse located, appropriately enough, on Morten Lane in the Warren area that had been left in his care.

It was here that he had his first brush with what he considered an unacceptable condition among St. Helens' leaders at the time.

He was driving into St. Helens on Gable Road when he came to the crosswalk used by St. Helens High School students to reach Safeway. Students swarmed across at unmarked locations, creating a dizzying environment for motorists to track.

'I'd drive down Gable Road, and I'd go, 'Oh, my God, what is going on here?'' he said.

Morten perceived it as unnecessarily dangerous, and as such he took his concerns to City Hall.

He said he was met more with apathy and a hands-are-tied attitude than a willingness to press the fight for a change to that intersection, which is under the jurisdiction of Columbia County, not the city.

But it was a springboard for Morten, who said examples of projects he deemed as critical, yet left untended, began to surface on an increasingly frequent basis. He saw a city stagnating, abandoned by an entrenched power structure that had lost its verve for revitalization and that lacked the vision to try something new.

'The more I would look at St. Helens, the more I would see Gable roads, the more I would see things that didn't make sense to me,' Morten said. 'To me, it was like a broken record.'

He said that, during one meeting at City Hall, a staff member made the comment that one man acting alone is not capable of making a difference in the city.

'That is the most insane statement I can imagine,' Morten said.

He entered the election, beating incumbent Jim Huff, and for all outward appearances launched immediately into securing ample power in the commission to make the changes he deemed fit.

Future in the works

That the current structure of the St. Helens government bears a strong likeness to the city of Portland's format is no mere coincidence.

Morten carried over many of his philosophies about government, about city organization and protocol, from his experiences in the Alameda neighborhood in Portland, where paid commissioners have a strong hands-on interplay with, and are accountable for, the various city departments.

One experience that stands out for Morten is his involvement in neighborhood associations, an idea he adamantly wants to hatch in St. Helens.

'We did make a difference, and that's the most important thing,' he said of his involvement with the neighborhood association. Neighborhood associations work as quasi-governmental bodies within a certain neighborhood boundary. Typically, there is an elected board that manages a variety of projects in the neighborhood, funded through annual dues, and it is an avenue for neighborhood residents to voice complaints. One of the criticisms of such associations is that they can become too strict, breeding intolerance for residents who don't conform to the association's vision.

Other criticism has been quick to fall on Morten's and the other councilors' shoulders in the wake of the government change and pay increases. One is that this council has shelved the recommendation of an 11-member Charter Review Committee to adopt government that instills more power in a paid city administrator.

Darrel Willis Jr., a member of the Charter Review Committee, said he does not feel slighted that the council has sidelined the recommendation, though he does expect some action on it in the future. Beyond questions of government, the charter review recommendation includes charter language limiting certain types of industry, such as the proposed tire pyrolysis plant that set its sights on St. Helens last year.

Willis, an employee with the city of Portland who has been living in St. Helens for the past five years with his wife and children, said he supports the commission form of government.

'There's pros and cons to having a commission form of government, but I think that as long as the commission keeps in mind, at all times, that they're there to serve the public, then I support it,' Willis said.

While Willis represented a minority on the committee, his position and that of other supporters of the commission government now has the opportunity to play out.

'I'm a supporter of democracy, so if the city decides to go a direction, I support that decision as best I can,' Willis said.

Some early indicators of change include the city's pursuit of an urban renewal district, and the effort to define a waterfront that will attract outside dollars from the river and into the city, with a possible future consisting of kite festivals and sailing conventions.

'I see the core rejuvenating itself,' Morten said. 'You know what? It's kind of cool to try different things.'