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Chamber dialogue exemplifies political divisiveness

It's no secret my tenure as a city councilor is coming to an end. As an elected official for more than 20 years, I've met some great people and learned more than most folks about how the sausage-making process we call 'government' actually works.

It's much more mundane than you might think.

There are a lot of marvelous things going on in West Linn, carried out by unsung heroes or by groups as various as the West Linn Lions, booster clubs, friends of one park or another, youth leaders, volunteers for city positions, churches and so many more. They are the upbeat side of West Linn.

Why am I bowing out at the end of this particular term? There are just too many people engaging in pure political fantasy. They have accumulated to a point where no one could possibly respond to all the nonsense. It's like trying to offer rational explanations to the wind. No matter how valid your point or clear your voice, the wind still howls. Serving on the city council is a window to the baser side of the community, where the biggest activity is gossip and games of attack politics. And, as we all know, these tactics are rarely carried forward with all the facts.

Recent dialogue about the West Linn Chamber of Commerce is a marvelous case in point. Commentaries abound, most of them accusatory, conspiratorial and full of distortion. Folks are taking sides over an issue that is actually very simple.

This town cannot support a full-time chamber with all the whistles and bells of other cities. Just five percent of the taxable land in West Linn is commercial, where most communities have about 30 to 50 percent. Only about 90 businesses have a storefront. Why in the world would a business group that small need a 15-member chamber board of directors? It's a recipe for unfulfilled dreams and hard feelings.

Residents regularly talk to city councilors about how they want to protect the small town feel of West Linn. Yet, the most active citizens expect to receive the same services of cities many times West Linn's size and to receive them for free.

There is a fundamental disconnect between citizen expectations and the ability of city government to respond within the limited funds of our town. And then when staff gets overwhelmed by the multitude of requests for information, the whisper campaign is created that no one at City Hall cares. A better term would be 'engineering for failure' by overloading the system. It's a wonder anything gets done.

Nearly every piece of land now left open in the city will require some form of 'variance' because of recent legislative activity by the city council. These are self-imposed limitations on future development. With the city nearing build-out, issues will be neighbor against neighbor fighting over one lot/deck/tree at a time. As recent events have shown, name calling far exceeds reasoned discussion in those situations.

The neighborhood associations have, with their own plan additions to the city-wide comprehensive plan, painted visions of what their residents want to see happen nearby. What comes next is the implementing legislation. This will be a tedious and lengthy process, sometimes pitting entire neighborhood against neighborhood in setting funding priorities to carry them out. Watch what happens. It will become just another venue for personal attacks.

Limiting growth continues to be a top interest for all West Linn residents. On the plus side, our city population remains small with very little annual increase. Very few understand the down side, that the city lacks a strong commercial base. Without a healthy business tax base, West Linn homeowners will continue to pay a disproportionate share of municipal and school costs. Bringing up that simple observation is enough to create a whole new round of personal attacks. After all, the only solution to a more balanced tax base is adding land for commercial activities.

Conspiracy theories have become a thriving form of entertainment in West Linn. They are cheap to create. But, it is extremely expensive for the city to constantly attend to the misconceptions and impossible for any individual city councilor to respond to so many inaccuracies with any hope of clearing them up.

I don't see my withdrawal from politics as a permanent solution to this atmosphere of innuendo, accusation and character assassination. It will just let me get some sleep for a change, knowing it will soon be someone else's turn to face the bitter wind.

Mike Gates is a member of the West Linn City Council.