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Open, transparent council doesn't start out that way

Open government.

Transparency.

This has been a familiar theme for new Lake Oswego Mayor Kent Studebaker.

He campaigned on it.

He was critical of former Mayor Jack Hoffman’s council for not having more of it.

And as recently as his swearing-in day on Jan. 8, he pledged, “This council will be open and transparent.”

While the sad reality appears to be that Studebaker feels his new-year-new-council is off to an open and transparent start, it is unfortunate that one of the mayor’s first actions was to operate in a nontransparent way, to replace a sitting interim city manager with a handpicked interim city manager in a power play that left some heads spinning at city hall.

But first, some history.

When the dust had settled after November’s election, Studebaker eked out a win over Greg Macpherson by 154 votes. According to the certified election results, Studebaker won by 243 votes in Clackamas County, won all two of the Washington County votes cast and lost by 91 votes in Multnomah County — hardly a mandate. And to his credit, Studebaker was humble and thanked Macpherson for a good race.

Working behind the scenes to elect Studebaker and fellow conservatives Karen Bowerman and Skip O’Neill were several groups, led primarily by the Lake Oswego Citizens Action League, or LOCAL, a political action committee. And a key mover and shaker on the LOCAL team was Lake Oswego resident Tom Coffee.

Studebaker and Coffee met last summer while attending LOCAL meetings. They shared ideas and Studebaker apparently liked what he heard.

On Jan. 15, the new Lake Oswego City Council had its first real meeting. Studebaker, Bowerman and O’Neill joined fellow new councilor Jon Gustafson along with returning councilors Donna Jordan, Mike Kehoe and Jeff Gudman. Of the seven, Jordan and Gustafson are expected to be the most nonconservative members.

One of the council’s very first actions, based on two motions by Studebaker, was to immediately place Coffee into the position of interim city manager and return acting City Manager David Donaldson back to his position as assistant city manager. Donaldson had been named interim after the former city manager, Alex McIntyre, left about a year ago.

So far, we don’t have qualms about Coffee in this position. New leaders certainly are entitled to put people around them with whom they feel comfortable. It’s a harsh rule of politics.

However, we do have a quibble that Studebaker apparently made the decision and shared it with fellow conservative members of his council. He told Jordan and Gustafson on Jan. 10 — the two councilors say begrudgingly and with little detail; Studebaker says with disclosure.

That led to last week’s council meeting, where Jordan and Gustafson criticized the process by which the hiring decision for Coffee was made. Both spoke with passion and obvious irritation.

Did they know in advance? Undoubtedly they knew in generalities. But this is where we have the bigger problem in this debate.

At Tuesday’s city council meeting, Studebaker released a prepared statement that read, in part: “When I was sworn in I pledged openness and transparency, so let’s quickly clear up the idea that I no longer believe that.

“There have been some suggestions from a couple of council members that I wasn’t open and transparent in making changes about the acting city manager. Ms. Jordan and Mr. Gustafson were indeed informed of the changes so I’m confused about their comments in the press and ... Facebook ...

“However, I believe that when communicating it is sometimes the fault of the one communicating if the message is not clear. So I pledge to be very clear in my future language and I urge all councilors to feel free to ask questions, to vent to me and not get frustrated on your Facebook pages or in the press.”

Studebaker believes that because he shared his intent with Jordan and Gustafson before the meeting he was open and transparent.

The problem we have is that these are just two people in a city of 37,000. The public was not informed of this game changer in advance. The agenda for the Jan. 15 council meeting noted a department report on the lengthy recruitment process for a permanent city manager, but it said nothing about swapping people in the interim post. There was no opportunity for public input. And there was no opportunity to ascertain if Coffee was indeed the right person for this position.

Mr. Mayor, when we hear you talking about openness and transparency in government, we want it to be with all of your citizens — not just a few behind the scenes. We think you missed the mark with this first act. We think you can do better.

We think this city carries some baggage from a number of years of political fighting. We were counting on you to start out on firm ground and make good on those promises of transparency and openness.

And since that didn’t happen, we do want to make it clear: We are going to keep paying attention and hope you get it right.




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