Santa Claus with Eric Niemann and 2 boys
Mayor Eric Niemann brought in a special guest to speak to Jacoby and Julian Jones, who had earlier participated in a flag presentation during Monday night’s City Council meeting. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Back in April when the coronavirus pandemic was picking up steam, City Manager Chris Workman announced a freeze on all management team salaries as a precaution during uncertain times.

In June, the Budget Committee and the City Council approved the 2020-21 fiscal year budget, which included funding for the management team salary adjustments. That factor combined with confirmation that property tax revenue was coming in as expected and that unemployment rates were dropping, Workman said that he feels the city’s financial situation had stabilized.

“It was right to place management team salaries on hold … as a precaution,” Workman said. “Based on what we now know, I am prepared to unfreeze salary adjustments and make them retroactive back to the start of the fiscal year.”

At the April 13 meeting, the City Council approved labor contracts that had been negotiated with the city’s two labor unions along with updated salary schedules for other employees. Finalized before the pandemic, the agreements in basic terms provided 3% cost-of-living adjustments and 3% raises for most employees based on various step increases.

Workman followed with the announcement of a salary freeze for department heads “until we get into more certain times.” Besides himself, the rest of the management team includes Police Chief Ken Rueben, Public Works Director Kevin Fear and Finance Director Joan Swanson, who is also heads up human resources.

The decision did not need to go to a vote of the council because as an approved part of the budget, the salary issue becomes an administrative function and Workman as city manager supervises the department heads.

Councilor Doug Edmonds said Workman’s decision reflects the city budget that had been implemented and Councilor David Low said he was in agreement. Councilor Ruth Causey commented that she was in favor of the salary freeze being lifted, however, she expressed opposition to them being retroactive.

“While in favor of implementing the salary increases, I have to strongly object to the notion that they should be implemented retroactively,” said Causey, who followed by reciting a statement from Workman at the April 13 meeting that indicated the city manager would return to the council at the appropriate time to discuss a lifting of the salary freeze moving forward and not on a retroactive basis.

“I think it would be deceptive to our community to make this a retroactive adjustment and I strongly object,” she reiterated.

Workman responded that at the time with a pandemic’s impacts being felt by everyone, there were uncertainties about what might lie ahead. Workman said he did make the statement that Causey referred to but added that his position had changed on the issue through a situation that has extended for several months and that it seemed like a fair move based on discussions by the city about where it wanted salaries to be for its employees.

“If we could point to services we cut or meetings that we weren’t holding or any type of cut in city services or work that city staff, especially management, has done, I consent that yeah, we should just do it going forward,” Workman said. “… I think just the opposite has taken place. I think the management team has stepped up the last six months; we’ve attended more meetings; we’ve been more proactive; we’ve had to juggle not only running the affairs of the city but managing staff during this time; and the fact that it’s gone on as long as it has, I would like to reverse my position on what I had said six, eight months ago until today.”

Causey said that if Workman felt the need for contingencies or time limitations, that he should’ve introduced that in April and not at this time and added that back then, she had no expectation that the pandemic would be resolved in a matter of months.

Mayor Eric Niemann said that he has seen a heightened level of responsibility with more meetings and added, “Personally, I think staff has risen to meet that challenge and worked a lot of extra hours unexpectedly or for a longer duration of time and that the management team ultimately did right by the council in uncertain times through the budget cycle … I think we need to reward that.”

A vote was not anticipated, but Niemann did make a motion on whether to proceed based on the city manager’s memo of awarding salary adjustments retroactively. More discussion followed with Low and Councilor Chas Jones weighing the issue and calling it a tough and challenging situation.

“I’ll repeat, I’m changing my position there, and I think that’s worthy of the discussion with the council and that’s why the memo is coming back to you,” Workman said. “I did want to get your feedback and I don’t want this I to become a divide between management and the council but I’d argue that I don’t know how the city is harmed any by paying the management team a full year’s salary for a full year’s worth of work at a salary scale and a salary rate that was approved in the budget six months ago.”

Jones said he did not like the idea of going against something that was said previously and then it changes six to eight months later. A vote on Niemann’s motion to support the move followed and it passed by a 4-2 margin with Causey and Jones voting nay.

In other stories out of the Dec. 14 meeting:

• The meeting opened with a tribute to Mark Campbell, a Waldport city councilor who was recently killed during an apparent break-in involving an apartment close to his own residence. Waldport mayor pro tem Sue Woodruff attended virtually. For more, look for a separate story to be posted.

• The meeting featured a presentation of tribal flags from The Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians and The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community. The flags were gifted to the city and presented with the help of Native American youth Jacoby and Julian Jones. For more, look for a separate feature story to be posted about the presentation.

• Lige Weedman, Public Works arborist, and Garry Black, Public Works supervisor, each received significant honors. The Oregon Heritage Tree Committee awarded the Maynard Drawson Award to Weedman and Oregon Community Trees awarded the Oregon Urban and Community Forestry Award to Black. For more, look for a separate story to be posted about the awards.

• Julie Arena, coordinator of the HOPE Advisory Board, spoke to the council about that group’s work on homeless-related issues, including current efforts such as listening sessions and public surveys. Workman reported that the board has reached out to Philomath to join the effort with representation on the committee. Jones later announced his idea of organizing a panel discussion on homelessness, possibly as early as January.

• Local resident Mark Knutson shared his perspective during public comments on improvements proposed for North 11th Street and what he believes would be negative impacts on the city and property owners on unimproved streets. Knutson submitted a comprehensive letter, maps and related documents to illustrate his views on the matter and said he would like to discuss it further at a future meeting. After some discussion, the City Council acknowledged that there is a lot to look at and sent the issue to the Public Works Committee. Later in the meeting, councilors Matt Lehman, Edmonds and Jones all stressed the importance of analyzing the situation.

• The council through a roll-call vote approved adoption of a voter-approved charter measure that amends mayor and councilor terms and qualifications. The vote in the November election was 2,133 in favor, 728 against.

• Edmonds expressed his concern about the recently-approved Measure 110, known as the Drug and Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative. Edmonds believes voters could’ve been confused about what it entailed concerning reduced penalties for possession of certain drugs. Edmonds urged the council to go on the record opposing the measure and has hopes that the state will take another look at the potential impacts.

• Workman reported that the streetscapes project continues to move forward with meetings that are taking place concerning various aspects. He expects to bring a resolution to the council for a jurisdictional transfer from the county to the city of a portion of 13th Street that falls within the project area.

• Workman reported that potentially beneficial conversations are coming out of meetings with the Benton County Board of Commissioners involving water agreements. In January, commissioners and city managers anticipate discussing agreements, including the sharing of resources in emergency situations.

• City Attorney Jim Brewer offered his office’s help when the Public Works Committee discusses issues related to public improvements, including various options that might be available.

• Finance Director Joan Swanson reported that the budget is in line with property tax revenue that has come into the city. Swanson said staff has been doing an excellent job over the past several months despite COVID-related restrictions. She also said that a state-required audit will not occur before a Dec. 31 deadline but Philomath will file an extension, which she said is normal and an action that many other municipalities will also need due to pandemic-related delays in the process.

• City Recorder Ruth Post reported positive feedback from the public on the city’s redesigned website. She also mentioned that the Philomath site was featured in a nationwide promotional email sent out by the website provider.

• The council met in executive session for performance evaluation purposes. The closed meeting lasted about 16 minutes and it was announced that another executive session will be held Dec. 21.

• Councilors briefly discussed a situation involving a website that posts information on city matters. A letter had been sent to the publisher with requests, including that a disclaimer be added that informs the public that the site is not associated with the city of Philomath. The site had been connected with Planning Commission Chair Joseph Sullivan but councilors said he informed them that he is no longer in control of the website. However, information on who is actually controlling the website was as of Monday night not disclosed to the council.

Following is a list of votes taken by the Philomath City Council at its Dec. 14 meeting:
• To approve a consent agenda that included the City Council minutes from Nov. 9 and Nov. 23 meetings. Motion: Edmonds. Seconded: Jones. Vote: Passes 6-0 (Yes—Causey, Edmonds, Jones, Lehman, Low, Niemann; Absent—Thomas).
• To proceed with unfreezing management team salary increases on a retroactive basis. Motion: Niemann. Seconded: Lehman. Vote: Passes 4-2 (Yes—Edmonds, Lehman, Low, Niemann; No—Causey, Jones; Absent—Thomas).
• To refer a discussion on unimproved streets to the Public Works Committee. Motion: Lehman. Seconded: Low. Vote: Passes 6-0 (Yes—Causey, Edmonds, Jones, Lehman, Low, Niemann; Absent—Thomas).
Note: The council also did a roll-call vote (6-0) to adopt an ordinance accepting election results amending the city charter.