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Controversy clouds city appointments

Lake Oswego has a new city manager.

In a surprise motion Tuesday night, Mayor Kent Studebaker proposed ending city manager David Donaldson’s one-year contract about a month early and returning him to his former job as assistant city manager. Studebaker then proposed replacing Donaldson in the chief executive post with Tom Coffee, a former assistant city manager who worked for the city until 2001.

Coffee assumed the city manager’s position at 8 a.m. Wednesday. The city will pay him $15,000 monthly through July 12, with an option to extend his contract on a monthly basis for six months after that.Tom Coffee

Some councilors criticized the process by which the hiring decision was made. Although the meeting agenda noted the council would discuss a formal recruiting process for a permanent city manager, it did not mention concluding Donaldon’s temporary appointment early and hiring a new interim manager in his place.

And while it’s common for council members to discuss these sorts of sensitive personnel issues in small groups out of the public eye — that’s essentially how Donaldson came to be promoted to the city manager position a year ago — and it’s not unusual for new leadership to make changes it feels are in line with its style and values, it would be less typical to keep a choice few elected leaders in the dark as such a decision is made.

‘A palace coup’

Discussion on Tuesday illuminated a discrepancy about whether every councilor had been informed of the decision and its context.

Councilor Jon Gustafson to Studebaker: “If you or any other councilors have some background on the decision that you’re proposing tonight I would be interested in hearing that.”

Studebaker: “How much detail do you want?”

Gustafson: “Let me try to speak very carefully and very sensitively: This is our first full regularly scheduled meeting, and there’s nothing more that I want than for our group to be highly functional and to have a good working relationship with each other.

“I’m really worried about that. ... It appears this decision to hire Mr. Coffee was done in secret. It was done without any public notice. It was done without an opportunity for any citizen involvement and without even informing the entire council.”

Gustafson continued: “I don’t want to speak prematurely about the possibility of Mr. Coffee becoming city manager, but the problem is I haven’t had the opportunity and the citizens haven’t had the opportunity to review his credentials, to talk with him or interview him, or even to see his resume. And, in one motion tonight, we’re going to hand the city administration over to him.”

Councilor Donna Jordan was next up to speak.

Jordan: “I was encouraged a week ago when you, Mr. Mayor, took your oath of office and immediately began talking about transparency and an open council and communicating with the public. But unfortunately I think I feel like I’m part of a palace coup this evening — knowing nothing about this plan of action, which apparently has been developed over a period of several months to place someone who endorsed you in your candidacy for mayor into the position of city administration, without any type of public input, without any kind of review by this whole council in a public setting.”

Studebaker responded that he also feels Donaldson “has done a fantastic job” and he’s “delighted” Donaldson will remain on staff.

Nobody ‘better qualified’

However, Studebaker said, “It’s my feeling and the feeling of a number of people here that Tom has the qualifications that we need to go in the direction we’re going. ... You’re not going to find anybody that is better qualified.”

He continued: “On the issue of openness and transparency, I guess I would have to say yes, we had some decisions that we thought we would make to carry out what the community seemed to want from us during the election, and part of that is getting somebody we felt had the qualifications to carry out the job of city manager. Did we tell everybody about it? No. We didn’t want David to have to suffer the slings and arrows. ... We didn’t do that. I don’t regret not doing that.”

After the meeting, he said he had informed Gustafson and Jordan of his plan to switch interim city managers last week and, when they asked about the replacement, he told them he planned to hire Coffee.

Council President Mike Kehoe agreed Donaldson “did an outstanding job.”

However, he said, “Unless this has changed ... David indicated he wanted to be considered for the city manager position. We’re far better off allowing him to go back to (being) the assistant city manager and apply for that position.”

Of Coffee, Kehoe said: “I think he goes through a very good decision process; he’s very well educated on the city of Lake Oswego. I think he could hit the ground running like David Donaldson did.”

Kehoe called Coffee’s appointment “an interim fix that I think is a perfect placeholder situation.”

“Tom’s not looking to run the city for five years or 10 years,” Kehoe said. “He’s coming out of retirement to help us for six months.”

But, Gustafson said, there has been no discussion — at least not publicly — about whether the city needs a new interim city manager while it prepares to hire a permanent replacement for former manager Alex McIntyre.

“There seems to be general agreement that David Donaldson has done a great job filling in,” he said. “I’m not seeing what this urgency is — except the rumors that I hear about Mr. Coffee’s ‘hit list’ of city employees, departments and programs that he’d like to get rid of.”

Councilor Karen Bowerman took issue with that language.

“It is rumor ... and I don’t believe it should be stated,” she said. “I do sense, however, the need for us to move forward, and I believe we should do that tonight.”

Gustafson responded: “Unfortunately, I’m grasping at straws here because all I have are rumors. That’s the only information I’m getting about this very important topic, and I guess in the absence of an open discussion on it, I’m expected to vote now.”

The council voted 5-2 to replace Donaldson with Coffee, with Studebaker, Bowerman, Kehoe, Jeff Gudman and Skip O’Neill in favor, and with Gustafson and Jordan opposed.

Concerned about priorities

Coffee has lived in Lake Oswego since 1991, when he moved here to take the job as planning director. Over the next decade, he also held the jobs of community development director and assistant city manager, retiring in 2001.

He worked as a consultant to West Linn on issues related to the Stafford area from 2001 to 2002, worked as community development director for the city of Tigard from late 2005 to early 2009 and again worked as a Stafford consultant for West Linn from 2009 to 2010. He lives in the Holly Orchard area.

About two years ago, he said, he became interested in the city’s work to update its comprehensive plan, and he subsequently became concerned about “how the city was prioritizing projects.”

After the meeting, he responded to allegations that he’s a “hatchet man” carrying out a “hit list” for Lake Oswego Citizens Action League, or LOCAL, a political action committee that became active before the November election. LOCAL has been highly critical of what it sees as overly generous staffing levels in the city’s economic development, planning and public affairs departments, among other issues.

Coffee was not only associated with the group but personally endorsed some of the PAC’s preferred slate of candidates, including Studebaker and Bowerman.

Coffee said his involvement with LOCAL was as a private citizen — not a government employee.

“I had every right to form opinions and to use my background and experience on the issues of concern in the campaign,” Coffee said, noting his involvement with the political committee will end because of his new duties. “I have no personal agenda here.

“I don’t have a hit list.”

Coffee said he believes new council members see him as a better fit. He said he was identified for the job after the election in November.

He suggested the alleged secrecy of his appointment stemmed from an “issue of confidentiality (the mayor) wanted to maintain with respect to David and whether he could rely on others to respect that confidentiality.”

‘It’s a great job’

David Donaldson doesn’t plan to apply for the permanent city manager position, in part because he worries knowledge of an inside candidate could deter other potential applicants.David Donaldson

“I think the best thing for the city at this point is to get the best possible candidate that fits with what they want,” he said Wednesday morning. “I really would like the mayor and the council to be successful. ... My thought was always ‘how can I help them get up to speed?’ I think that’s what Tom (Coffee) will do as well: How can we get these people the information they need so they can make good decisions?”

Donaldson added: “The council-manager form of government, I think, is the best form of government. Part of that is that the council gets to decide; that’s what happened.

“That happens all over the country after elections — things change. That’s a fact of life.” Besides, he said, “I like being the assistant city manager. It’s a great job.”




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