Benton County Sheriff Jef Van Arsdale and County Commissioner Xan Augerot talk about the county’s Justice System Improvement Program during the Oct. 10 City Council meeting. Pictured around the table clockwise starting from lower right, Councilor David Low, Councilor Matt Lehman, Assistant City Manager Chelsea Starner, City Manager Chris Workman, Mayor Chas Jones, City Attorney Jim Brewer, Councilor Ruth Causey, Van Arsdale and Augerot. Councilors Jessica Andrade, Catherine Biscoe and Teresa Nielson attended via videoconferencing. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Just a week after a cordial gathering for a ceremonial groundbreaking to celebrate streetscapes construction that’s now on the horizon, the mood got a little chippy during an Oct. 10 City Council meeting during a discussion on the project’s proposed communication plan.

Two councilors challenged city administrators over how the plan had developed in previous weeks. Over a 44-minute discussion, Assistant City Manager Chelsea Starner and City Manager Chris Workman provided an overview of the process that had taken place to develop ideas for what to include in the proposed communication plan, including discussions out of a Sept. 14 Public Works Committee meeting and a later meeting between city staff and the Oregon Department of Transportation’s project manager.

A checklist that had been compiled included various strategies to keep the business and residential communities informed on the latest status of the project. Starner and Workman shared comments on what they hope will happen with getting regular updates from the project’s contractor so it can effectively be passed along to the public — more on that will become known after a pre-construction meeting takes place.

Another strategy on the table is to communicate with businesses and residents in affected areas through direct contact, such as a mailing, and to pass along information to other community organizations that might have a following beyond those who keep tabs on city business through its website or newsletter.

Starner asked for support from the council to move forward and opened up the conversation. Councilors Catherine Biscoe and Jessica Andrade voiced disapproval that they had not been part of the previous discussions and pointed to the Sept. 14 Public Works Committee meeting. Biscoe said that if she’s remembering correctly, the council previously voted that any issues to go before committees will be approved in advance.

“I don’t recall that we had a preapproval of this council for this particular communications engagement to occur at the Public Works Committee,” Biscoe said. “I do feel like it was inappropriate for it to land there in this advanced state.”

Andrade suggested that an ad-hoc committee should’ve been formed instead so all council members could participate in the early discussions. The Public Works Committee’s Sept. 14 meeting included the streetscapes communication plan discussion on its agenda with an action item summary by Starner. The committee includes Chair Ruth Causey, Matt Lehman and David Low, although Lehman was not able to attend that particular meeting.

Causey said she felt the Public Works Committee meeting was entirely appropriate for the initial discussion as it provided a less formal setting and made it comfortable for the businesspeople who were able to attend at that time.

Workman said he felt the Public Works Committee was the most appropriate place to begin an initial conversation on developing a plan and planning initial outreach. Said Workman, “That’s been the pattern we’ve established with the committees of the City Council for years now — that was my decision, my call.”

Mayor Chas Jones then said, “I appreciate that we don’t have to have these minutiae types of conversations for the whole council whereas it’s kind of the purpose of the committees to have these conversations, flesh it out a little bit and then bring it to the council.”

Low had comments about the City Council’s relationship with the city manager’s office, a topic he’s brought up in the past. He believes that the process that took place with city staff setting up early discussions was what should be expected.

“There are other points of view that say we need to micromanage, we need to be more involved and decide for ourselves, really, what we hired the city manager and the staff to do,” Low said. “… Nothing is necessarily settled in those committees; recommendations are made, as you know, and they come back to the full council and then we weigh in on them as we’re weighing in now.”

Biscoe took exception to the mention of micromanagement.

“There’s a lot of assumptions that have existed in the space of this current council administration as to the assumed micromanagement of the city manager of the city administration,” Biscoe said. “I’d like to just state for the record that in a council-city manager form of government, it still remains the duty of the council to oversee the administration of the city and in order for us to do that effectively, it’s important that we are at least aware of the administration of the city.”

Biscoe later reiterated her point while discussing topics that she wanted to address, saying, “It’s important to note that this is about our responsibility to the needs of this community as a whole. It is not about micromanagement; it’s about best practices in government.”

Jones at that time replied, “Thank you; you’ve gotta love election season, don’t you?” As the mayor tried to move on with the meeting, Biscoe responded with a point of order that the mayor’s comment was unnecessary.

Among the other side conversations, Starner had mentioned that the streetscapes communications topic had been talked about during Philomath Community Network meetings for months. Those informal gatherings occur once per month and include various community leaders and organizations’ representatives who share information in what is basically a networking opportunity over lunch.

“This is not the first time that this particular gathering of folks, which is a pretty extensive group of community representation, has come up and has exhibited influence over the business of the city,” Biscoe said. “I would like to ask that we have some sort of record of what’s going on in those meetings because I think that’s a place where we can be more transparent in what’s going on in our community.”

Andrade had questions about what businesses were invited to the Sept. 14 Public Works meeting, asking if it was limited only to chamber of commerce members, and what about those who did not see a State of the City talk at a September chamber luncheon when the streetscapes communication plan was discussed. She expressed a concern that not all businesses are being included in the conversation.

Starner said that efforts to reach out to businesses that could be impacted by the project will include all — not just chamber members — as well as private residents, along with certain other entities that may have an interest, such as the school district.

Starner and Workman both invited comments on the proposed plan from council members and said there is still ample opportunity to fold in any ideas or perspectives.

Two Andrade motions were passed to add bullet items to the proposed list of efforts to be made — one that specifically states that businesses not part of the chamber of commerce to be included in future communications and the other to add language that ensures city councilors will receive regular updates on the process.

A final vote to approve the plan as amended and direct city staff to move forward with communication efforts passed on a 6-1 vote (Biscoe nay).

In other news out of the Oct. 10 meeting:

• Benton County Commissioner Xan Augerot and Sheriff Jef Van Arsdale provided details on the county’s proposed Justice System Improvement Program.

• The council approved separate resolutions proclaiming Oct. 10 as Indigenous Peoples Day and Nov. 11 at Veterans Day.

• The council approved a $600 stipend to help cover travel expenses for a Veterans Day presentation by Robert Bartlett on the Triple Nickles entitled “Jumping Into Fire.” The program is scheduled to run 6-8 p.m. Nov. 9 at Philomath Scout Lodge.

• Kristin Knutson and Mark Knutson during public comments shared remarks challenging the city manager’s actions, execution of conditions of approval and public records availability of documents related to the Heather Glen subdivision.

• The council unanimously approved of leaving an Inclusivity Committee seat vacant until after Jan. 1.

• The council unanimously approved a Tree Board resignation and directed staff to leave the seat vacant until January.

• During councilor reports, Andrade talked about inclusivity-related issues. Workman gave updates during the city manager’s report on local construction projects.

• The council adjourned for 42 minutes into executive session to discuss real property transactions. There was no discussion or a vote after reconvening in the public meeting.

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.