Vacated positions to be filled in November vote rather than special election

The recent departure of West Linn’s municipal court judge, and the replacement process that followed immediately thereafter, prompted City Manager Chris Jordan to consider a charter amendment that would streamline the process.

Though Rhett Bernstein, a city prosecutor, was appointed by city council as an interim replacement to Heather Karabeika, he will only be allowed to serve until Sept. 17, when a special election will determine a permanent replacement until the term ends in 2014.

The downside of this practice, according to Jordan, is that September special elections generally see a very low turnout, and each one generates an extra $10,000 in city expenses.

“(The judge situation) reminded me of when Councilor (Jenni) Tan and Mayor (John) Kovash were elected to their positions initially,” Jordan said. “It was on a September ballot, when we had a November ballot basically going on at the exact same time. And I think it led to potentially a lot of confusion. It was just a very odd dynamic.”

With that in mind, Jordan proposed during a June 6 city council work session to amend the charter and allow elections for vacant positions to be held during May and November general elections.

That process led Jordan to a few other charter-related ideas, including amendments to clarify that all land annexations must be approved by voters, to add City Attorney Tim Ramis as a charter officer and to prohibit the city council from influencing decisions related to personnel and public contracting.

“I put (these ideas) together to see what you might want to be fixed or changed,” Jordan told the council.

Councilors expressed favor toward all of the proposed charter amendments except for one, which concerned utility rates and altered language so rates on sanitary sewers, storm sewers and water could not be increased collectively by more than 5 percent. The charter currently has a limit of 5 percent on each individual rate. In a May 31 memo, Jordan said, “This would allow the council to consider prioritizing rate increases for each utility so that the total does not exceed an increase of 5 percent.”

The amendment would essentially offer more flexibility in rate shifts, but Councilor Mike Jones was quick to say he wasn’t interested in pursuing it. Other councilors had nothing to add on the matter and the issue was shelved.

The other amendments drew a much more favorable response. Regarding annexations, councilors agreed that current charter organization was confusing — there is separate language for areas outside of the urban growth boundary and inside of it — and supported an amendment making clear that voter approval is required no matter the loc unanimous support for an amendment that would make the attorney a charter officer — like Jordan — and leave no doubt about who reports to whom.

Finally, though it hasn’t been a problem with the current mayor and council, improper influence regarding personnel or contracting decisions has come up during Jordan’s tenure, and that prompted him to suggest a specific amendment regarding this issue.

“The idea behind the council-manager form of government is that council sets policy, the city manager does hiring and the council does not use its political influence to give out jobs to people or to award contracts to people,” Jordan said. “This language would make it very specific that the council cannot indirectly or directly influence contract decisions or employment decisions.”

The council directed Jordan to begin work on putting each of these approved amendments on the September election ballot.

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