Gladstone's City Council on July 25 surprised Frank Hernandez when they refilled the seats of two former councilors who were recalled in a May 23 special election.
Hernandez and Michael Milch, a member of the downtown revitalization committee, were named by consensus as the two preferred candidates by an interview committee on July 19.
Hernandez was honored by the nomination and invited his wife to take photographs of him being sworn in as a city councilor. A 19-year resident of Gladstone, Hernandez was selected by the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators as the Assistant Principal of the Year.
"Probably because of my extensive background in administration, the interview committee thought I would make a great city councilor," Hernandez said. "For the last 20 years, my consulting business sent me into dysfunctional environments to develop systems with structured protocols."
Hernandez wouldn't get the opportunity to share photos of himself proudly accepting the oath of office, however. He and his wife ended up leaving the City Council meeting early in embarrassment.
Councilor Neal Reisner and Mayor Tammy Stempel wanted to accept the interview committee's recommendation, but they were overruled by the other city councilors: Tom Mersereau, Pat McMahon and Linda Neace. Mersereau first suggested that the City Council vacancies be appointed separately, rather than accepting the recommendation.
City councilors easily agreed on Milch for the first open seat, but a slim majority of City Council substituted Matt Tracy for Hernandez on the other seat. Neace was the first councilor to suggest Tracy over Hernandez, then Mersereau and McMahon followed suit, with Reisner and Stempel voting for Hernandez. The mayor then gave a passionate speech in opposition to the reversal.
"I think it's important that we listen to our advisory committees, and this is an example where we did not," Stempel said. "I want to apologize to the committee [members] that took the time to do this and then were disregarded."
Hernandez was a teacher for 16 years in the North Clackamas School District before his career in education moved into administration for the next 15 years. He said that he will not be running for City Council again, because he thinks that even if he won the election, he would face constant opposition from other city councilors.
"City Council has given me the impression that I'm not welcome and that they're actively hostile to me being on council," Hernandez said.
Tracy said that he was probably as surprised as Hernandez was by the reversal. Tracy said he had been told by a seemingly informed citizen that he wouldn't be appointed to City Council, but he showed up anyway for the swearing-in ceremony, because he wanted to complete the process.
Steve Johnson and Kim Sieckmann were recalled from the City Council by more than 55 percent of voters in the May 23 special election. Johnson was one of the seven applicants to the open seats, and his appointment to the council theoretically could have been legal due to a technicality.
In 1952, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that it had been illegal to appoint a member of the Portland City Council to the seat from which he had just been recalled. Gladstone's city attorney said that Johnson could have been appointed to the seat number that previously had been held by Sieckmann, the other city councilor who was recalled on May 23.
However, none of the remaining five members of City Council wished to try to appoint Johnson.
"There were people who were asking me to apply for the position," Johnson said. "I didn't break any laws and I didn't do anything wrong, so there was no reason I couldn't in good conscience apply."
On July 11, the City Council appointed six people to the committee assigned to interview the seven applicants and make recommendations for the two vacant positions. The interview committee consisted of Mayor Tammy Stempel, Councilor Tom Mersereau, Gladstone Acting City Administrator Jacque Betz, Gladstone city employee Marna Barnes, and citizens Les Poole and Mindy Garlington.
Garlington, who also is a member of the Gladstone Budget Committee and the Parks & Rec Board, was disappointed that the City Council did not accept the recommendations. She wondered if there was an invisible force with a motive against Hernandez.
"The bias against Frank Hernandez is very blatant to me," Garlington said. "It's clear he is the most educated and has the most experience."
Hernandez, who is Hispanic, said that besides racism, another possible motive against him would be his candidacy against Mersereau in the 2016 election. Gladstone, which is about 9 percent Hispanic, has not had a Hispanic member of its seven-person City Council since Kari Martinez lost her re-election attempt by a 34.8 to 64 percent to Steve Johnson in 2014. In November 2016, Hernandez received more than 48 percent of the vote against Mersereau, who was then the interim mayor.
"One person's bias virtually allowed the entire council to be swayed," Hernandez said.
Mersereau, before he participated on the interview committee, suggested on July 11 that he wanted to consider candidates who had experience on advisory boards to the City Council.
"Personally, I think you have to look at your candidates and look at what they provide you with information," Mersereau said. "For example, if you've got three persons or two persons, we'll say, that don't have any experience or don't have any whatever, you may rule them out."
Mersereau seemingly reversed his stance when Hernandez confronted him with the apparent bias prior to the July 19 interview.
"Not having councilor qualifications — excuse me — councilor experience makes no difference to me," Mersereau said.
Gladstone resident Libby Wentz, a member of the Traffic Safety Commission, pointed out that Hernandez was part of the 2016 election committee, Voting for a Stronger Gladstone, which included Stempel, Reisner and recall petitioner Bill Osburn.
"So one of the men not elected began a recall, and Tammy and Neal pushed for the other man to be appointed to the position he didn't win," Wentz said. "Matt Tracy was the best possible pick because he has no affiliation."
Gladstone resident Nancy Eichsteadt wasn't satisfied with the explanation of Voting for a Stronger Gladstone opponents and said that Hernandez has more education and relevant experience than anyone sitting on the council.
"This is a clear case of discrimination," Eichsteadt said. "It's clear that the council is prejudiced, and no mystery that we cannot get women or minorities to participate in our city government. Citizens want Gladstone to move forward, but we just traveled back to the '50s."
"This incident reinforces the impression that you need to be 'in' with certain council members to have a chance," Hernandez said. "Also, that the community is welcome to speak, but will only be heard if it aligns with council ideas."
Garlington was a bit more optimistic about Gladstone's future.
"While the appointments were not what I had recommended, this is how our system works and only time will tell if the council made the right choices," Garlington said.
Nobody has said that Tracy isn't qualified to be a city councilor, and all citizens are saying that they are looking forward to working with him. While he has lived in Gladstone for less than two years, before that, he lived in Portland since 1990. After he worked as a Vietnamese linguist for the U.S. Army from 1987-90, he got a bachelor's degree in political science from Portland State University, where he received his master's degree in public administration in 1995.
"It has occurred to me that nobody knows who I am," Tracy said.
Tracy is an employee of Metro, where he works as the principal planner for solid-waste transfer-station operations, but he says that he tries to be "very cognizant" about keeping his employment separate from his volunteer service with the city of Gladstone. In his day job, he has been trying to find ways to decrease the long lines at the overcapacity transfer station in Oregon City.
Speaking as a citizen of Gladstone, he said that he'd be happy to spend lots of time listening to other citizens. He said that people might not always be happy with his decisions.
"First and foremost for me, government should not be a burden on its citizens," Tracy said. "While some may feel there's some burden placed on them by this governing council, I don't think that's the intent, and that's why I felt like throwing my hat in the ring. That, along with the fact that I've been able to build bridges in my previous career between government and business, and I've had some successes. I've managed a $1 million grant where I had to work with multiple waste-hauling business; I've managed grant monies for the exploration of renewal fuel; I'm the president of the board of directors for the Columbia-Willamette Clean Cities Coalition."
To try to keep some stability in Gladstone governance, Tracy is planning to run for election to the seat in 2018. Right now, he's sifting through packets of information, trying to get a handle on how the city is run and working on gaining the trust of Gladstone citizens.