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Discussion: Is there cronyism within city council?

As election season heats up, political anxiety rises in Canby and accusations become louder

Locally elected officials are expected to be nonpartisan but individuals, of course, have their political leanings, and there is no real law or enforcement mechanism in place to make sure city councils remain free of partisan politics — elected officials are charged with following the spirit of this Oregon democratic ideal.

The 2016 election season has been spurred on, or dragged down depending on one’s perspective, by two over-the-top, negative presidential campaigns, which have only contributed to the rising political angst witnessed across America and the general, underlying perception that those on the other side of the political aisle are to be met with suspicion and contempt.

It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, then, that while the Canby City Council is preparing to interview applicants who wish to be appointed to the city council seat being vacated by Councilor Todd Rocha — he announced he officially will resign once a replacement is found — partisan anxiety has bubbled to the surface in Canby this election season with questions of cronyism being raised by the public and discussed by city councilors.

The accusation that the Canby City Council is an old boys’ club is not a new one, but it is one that current councilors say is unfounded. To explain how the situation escalated to this point, one must go back to the Sept. 21 city council meeting, which was the first meeting after Rocha announced he was stepping down.

The council voted 4-1-1 that night after some deliberation — Councilor Tracie Heidt cast the lone “nay” vote and Rocha abstained — to appoint a successor now rather than waiting until after the November election. Councilors Clint Coleman, Tim Dale and Traci Hensley are running for re-election against challengers Irene Konev and Sarah Spoon.

Hensley, who is vice chair of the Clackamas County Republican Party, championed the position that it was important for the council to follow precedent and appoint a successor, and Parker agreed, saying the Canby city charter distinguishes two clear processes for a citizen to become a councilor — the council appoints to fill vacancies; expired terms are filled by election.

Mayor Brian Hodson said during the Sept. 21 city council meeting that people already had contacted him who are interested in being interviewed for Rocha’s position. It has been confirmed that one of those citizens is Tyler Smith, a Canby planning commissioner, vice chairman of the Oregon Republican Party and the Canby business attorney well known for defending Aaron and Melissa Klein, the Portland bakers who were ordered to pay a gay couple $135,000 for refusing to make their wedding cake on religious grounds.

Incidentally, at the last planning commission meeting Smith announced he would not seek the vice-chair position vacated by former planning commissioner Shawn Hensley because Smith planned to apply for the open council position.

And Shawn Varwig, owner of Judson Roy Home Furnishings in downtown Canby, told the Herald last Sunday evening he also was applying to be interviewed for Rocha’s seat.

During the Sept. 21 city council meeting, Hodson read a letter from Robert Bitter, a previous Canby city councilor, who argued that the council should wait until after the November election to select a replacement for Rocha.

“If you wait the few weeks remaining until after the election you may well have good candidates remaining who have expressed the desire to serve the people of Canby and have articulated it well,” the letter stated. “This should never be viewed as a partisan position and I encourage you to demonstrate this by delaying this election for a short time.”

After the Sept. 21 meeting, Heidt posted a message on Facebook denouncing the council’s vote to appointment Rocha’s successor now instead of waiting until after the election.

[Sic.] “The purpose of selecting someone immediately, in my opinion, ensures that the current council majority can elect whomever they choose before they potentially lose their majority after the election,” Heidt wrote. “They wanted to ‘do it the way we have always done it,’ which is open up the position for approximately two weeks and then decide during a special council session. I asserted that a potential appointee should go through the same rigorous forum that the 5 candidates campaigning must go through to be vetted and that ‘business as usual’ was not appropriate under these very unusual circumstances with the 3 incumbents running a competitive race against 2 challengers. In the end, ‘business as usual’ won the vote with me being the only nay vote.”

Accusations of cronyism and partisan politics later were raised by citizens online and in phone calls to the Herald. The online remarks were read by at least one city councilor, as well as Konev and Spoon. Konev said while canvassing in Canby, residents told her they do not follow the city council because they do not believe decisions are made out in the open. And in at least one incidence, Parker responded with a post encouraging people to apply for the open council seat.

Regardless of one’s political perspective, it can be argued that all politicians, in local, county and federal government, attempt to recruit others into the mix that follow their own values and belief system, and that no public office is devoid of some level of partisan politics — that’s how the political game is played. With that in mind, Hodson asked if it was wrong for any city councilor to encourage qualified people, including those that he or she philosophically agrees with, to apply for the soon-to-be vacant council position.

“I believe cronyism is unfounded,” Hodson said. “We do not know who all of the applicants will be going forward through the vetting process. Let the process play out — let the people apply, let the people interview, let the council deliberate. This is how it was done when I was appointed with councilor Rich Ares — we both went through application and interview process like we did now. Cronyism is disappointing and not what our community is about, and I don’t believe that what our councils have been about.”

Former Canby city councilor Rich Ares said he watches most city council meetings on CTV5 and he understands how someone might think the council plays favorites, and that being called an old boys’ club shouldn’t be a shocking revelation.

“Last election, I felt fed that philosophy when the councilors said, ‘Re-elect us — we are a great team,’” Ares said. “From what I see there is not a lot of discussion about options or other viewpoints. It seems the decisions are made out in the parking lot and not in the public meeting. It is a groupthink thing. It’s a philosophy that’s parroted by a majority of the council and I don’t think that’s indicative of the community. There’s always a block vote and it’s always the same people voting the same direction.”

Parker said he challenges the fundamental assertion of cronyism, and pointed out that with Hodson not able to cast a vote to appoint a new councilor and Rocha abstaining it only takes a three-vote majority to approve a replacement.

“One could say that Dale and Hensley are two conservatives, and Coleman is a moderate while Heidt and myself are progressives,” Parker said. “So, there is no majority good ol’ boys club or voting block.”

Hodson said he has not had any Canby citizens say to him that they think the council operates outside of the public eye, and if that is a concern on any level they should “by all means reach out to me.”

“I will gladly discuss it with anyone,” Hodson said. “That is something that, if I am doing my job as mayor, those are concerns that need to be addressed.”