Citizens speak up about city services, plans at town hall forum

As many as 200 people packed Lake Oswego City Hall on Tuesday to sound off on issues such as teen programs, parks services, road maintenance, utility rates and the future of the West End Building.

Mayor Kent Studebaker proposed holding the town hall meeting to kick off the year. Elected in November, Studebaker is part of a new conservative-leaning majority on the city council.

Although he was unable to attend the meeting — he was due back in town Wednesday from Texas, where his son-in-law was killed earlier this month — Studebaker sent a recorded message to start the forum. In the video, he said the council might not be able to please everyone, but it will at least listen to all opinions as it tries to meet citizens’ needs within the constraints of the city’s budget.

“As a council we will try to be as clear and thorough as we can in making known to you the reasons for our actions,” Studebaker said.

The input provided by citizens this week could affect not only the council’s priorities for 2013 but what the city chooses to spend money on — or cuts — in the fiscal year that begins in July. Annual efforts to map out a recommended spending plan are already in the works at city hall.

The format was less formal than a regular council meeting. Instead of sitting at the dais at the front of council chamber, councilors shared a table with citizens. Anyone who signed up to talk had two minutes to speak.

Many people urged the council to maintain parks and recreation programs, including a hiking group and the municipal golf course. Tennis enthusiasts urged the council to continue a long-running effort to build a new indoor tennis center, which would be funded in part by selling the existing tennis facility and through fees paid by tennis players.

Others advocated for youth offerings like the teen center at the West End Building, the city skate park and youth basketball, as well as services for folks on the older end of the spectrum at the adult community center.

Cheryl Goeken said the ACC and the parks and recreation department offer “rich programming and community to our children and senior citizens.”

Of the teen center, she said, her son has benefited by being involved, the program offers educational and social experiences that keep youths out of trouble.

“Look at this as an investment instead of an expense,” Goeken said.

Debbie Craig suggested that the council add a 2013 priority that calls for “maintaining our high level of community services or parks services, because that’s what everybody has talked about here tonight.”

“We all moved here to put our kids in school and enjoy our parks,” she said. “We did not move here for our streets or sewer, although of course we want those to work.”

Protecting and enhancing Luscher Farm and the city’s farmers market were also strong themes.

Others felt the council should focus more on paving potholes and maintaining roads than parks and recreation.

“Government shouldn’t take care of needs and wants from cradle to grave,” Janine Dunphy said. “Preschool activities, after-school programs, exercise programs, recreational programs — these are all important but could very well be handled by educational institutions, the faith-based community and private enterprise. Maybe it is time for all of us as citizens to step up and handle some of these services ourselves.”

A handful of people also advocated for continuing efforts to improve public facilities in Lake Grove. Another handful urged the council to reconsider partnering with Tigard to upgrade and expand Lake Oswego’s drinking water system.

A few people urged the council to pull back from economic development initiatives, while others supported such efforts, which include the North Anchor plan, a redevelopment proposal on B Avenue downtown.

There were also discrepancies on what to do about the West End Building. A couple of people urged the council to sell the building, whose value plummeted soon after it was purchased. Others felt the best option now is to keep the building, which provides space for many recreation programs and has plenty of additional room around it.

Ivonne Flores said the Lake Oswego Mothers Club appreciates using the space and partnering with the parks and recreation department at the WEB.

She said events such as the annual preschool forum and holiday fair, offered in partnership between the mothers club and the city parks department, demonstrate community support and draw new families to the area.

In addition, Flores said, “It’s in these community events that families make friends with other families, children feel happy about being included and small businesses are supported and highlighted.”

Carolyn Krebs of the Lake Oswego Neighborhood Action Coalition said the city needs more sustainable policies for dealing with rising costs of employees and retirement obligations. That could include developing a strategy to reduce those costs by identifying which employees are needed to provide core services.

Jim Bolland, also of LONAC, said the council should make targeted staffing level reductions, “particularly looking at economic development, planning, public affairs and parks and recreation.”

John Surrett called city staff members “a central concern,” citing their work with the city of West Linn, which wants Lake Oswego to pay $5 million for the impact of water plant and pipeline projects it has proposed in West Linn.

“It’s almost like a bunch of bears running loose in the woods with our checkbook without our approval,” Surrett said. “I’m totally opposed to this.”

Many people spoke up about public art. Erin Gustafson said it may not be easy to quantify, but public art contributes to the city’s economy and improves the overall quality of life for citizens.

“Support for arts and culture groups says a lot about the richness a community has to offer,” she said.

Cheryl Uchida said removing and eradicating invasive vegetation is important, even if it isn’t a mandatory service. “Without a continuous commitment” to fund invasive species control plans, the city will never get to the “root” of the problem, she said.

A number of residents spoke out against the city’s sensitive lands program, which sets additional land-use restrictions in areas considered environmentally sensitive.

Gary Buford said the tree code should be rewritten to consider parcel size in the rules. Today’s tree code and sensitive lands program are unfair with regard to private property rights, he said.

“They do not treat all citizens equally and fairly,” Buford said. “This is important. You’ve got to treat people fairly.”

After three and a half hours, and after listening to almost 75 people present their opinions, Council President Mike Kehoe thanked citizens for attending the meeting.

He said the council will soon consider the input, along with emails and opinions submitted through the city’s website, as it works on next year’s budget and sets priorities for 2013.

“We need your help winnowing those down and deciding: What are the key focuses?” Kehoe said. “We want to manage your money, which is our tax money.”

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