The Philomath City Council unanimously tabled a proposal on Monday night to move forward with an effectiveness intervention program after revisiting the issue and receiving a more complete scope of services available through the League of Oregon Cities.
Since taking the oath of office back in January, city councillors have experienced challenges getting through meeting agendas with disagreements, personality conflicts and exceptionally long debates often bogging down the matters at hand.
During the council’s Aug. 9 meeting, City Attorney Jim Brewer brought up intervention options “to try to help you function and work together better” with a focus on two options — a League of Oregon Cities program or a free consulting alternative through the city’s insurer, CityCounty Insurance Services.
At the time, councilors decided to move forward with the LOC program with city staff directed to set up a session.
However, at a Sept. 13 meeting, the council hit the brakes on the LOC program and wanted more information on the free services through CIS after there had been some pushback on the $5,000 cost.
“Unfortunately, we don’t provide the same kind of services as LOC so I don’t have a proposal to give you,” Tamara Russell Jones of CIS wrote in communication to City Manager Chris Workman. “… No one on staff is poised to do the kind of excellent work that LOC does with communication facilitation, and training on roles and responsibilities.”
Jones said when the type of services that Philomath is requesting comes up from other cities, CIS always refers them to LOC.
“I have to say, you’ve all been working well together the last couple of meetings, but I do think this is still something that you would find useful and that would benefit the community,” Brewer said about moving forward with either the LOC services or some type of workplace mediation program.
The LOC program is designed to be a full-day facilitation with the purpose of accomplishing three things, according to that organization’s Patricia Mulvihill:
• Begin the process of solidifying trust.
• Identify any communication barriers and if any barriers are identified, build new communication pathways.
• Identify roles and responsibilities for each official participating in the facilitation.
“In that part, do I see deficits within what I’ve viewed and participated in in each of those areas — most definitely,” Councilor Teresa Nielson said. “So in that aspect, I think it would be advantageous for us to at least consider how this could be a benefit to our own council.”
A few councilors with full-time jobs expressed some opposition to the program because of new information that it would take up a full weekday — the possibility of splitting it up into a few evenings or on the weekend were suggested. There were also concerns about the effectiveness of participating through videoconferencing and not in person with one idea being to get together physically in a large space while wearing masks.
“I probably think under the best of circumstances when it’s live and in person, this is probably a challenging process and I think it would be much more so over Zoom, especially having had some technical issues myself,” City Councilor Ruth Causey said. “So with that, I would like to ask if we could entertain a motion to table this for a few months and revisit it if we feel it would be advantageous to us.”
In the information provided by LOC’s Mulvihill, not only are the elected officials encouraged to participate in the program but also the city manager and any relevant department heads. This past summer, Workman pulled city staff members from participating in council meetings because of what he called a “toxic work environment” and asked that all questions or requests from councilors go to him and not department heads or other staff members, unless it involved legal issues for the city attorney’s office or business directly related to the city clerk’s responsibilities.
Councilor David Low on Monday night asked Workman to weigh in on the situation and if he felt conditions had improved. One reason for optimism appears to be a positive approach that councilors have taken during recent work sessions regarding council rules, a process that could potentially solve some past issues.
“I am eager to see those council rules get adopted and implemented and followed,” Workman said. “I’m not ready at this point where I feel … like it could be appropriate (for staff) to come back into meetings quite yet. But I think a few months from now after seeing some progress and again holding each other accountable to council rules, I think we can make some good progress.”
Brewer said that in conversations he’s had with LOC’s Mulvihill, other city councils are seeing similar challenges.
“What she said is that across the state over the last two or three years, city councils both as a result of demographic change and as a result of some political changes have had a lot more issues with just how to talk to each other in a way that work can be accomplished,” Brewer said. “Part of that is how do you disagree strongly and not disrespectfully? That’s a skill.
“This would be conducted by a couple of lawyers … but I think they are getting a lot of experience doing this and I think that they will have some insight on how you can still have strong opinions without having sharp elbows with each other,” he added.
In a show of hands midway through the discussion, three of the six councilors in attendance wanted to move forward with scheduling the LOC program — Jessica Andrade, Catherine Biscoe and Low. (Mayor Chas Jones was not at the meeting).
“I don’t know that the council rules are necessarily the thing that is causing or driving any change,” Biscoe said. “Certainly this is an opportunity to make some improvements across the board in any spaces that the League of Oregon Cities thinks might be helpful.”
Andrade wanted to explore the possibility of meeting in person in a large space with masks.
“I think this is really important and I still think this does need to be done in my opinion,” Andrade said about going through the LOC program. “Things do feel better but I feel like it’s only been a short time.”
Low said a critical component to the LOC intervention would come down to effectiveness.
“The cost also is a factor but if we can become a better council and if we really can appreciate others’ points of view and be able to continue our process, hopefully a growth process, it’s worthwhile,” Low said.
Biscoe reminded the council that a certain amount of dollars had been budgeted for this type of purpose, although she had questions about whether or not those funds had been earmarked for other activities.
Andrade said she doesn’t know how effective DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) training could be with so much contention within themselves.
“We’re not quite a homogenous group demographically speaking, but we are more so than not I would say,” she said. “I don’t see how we can move forward with that kind of training if we don’t work together effectively and have better communication as a group.”
Councilor Matt Lehman suggested that more training as a whole might be an option instead of a personal intervention approach.
“It appears to me that there’s still some confusion about ‘how things work’ and that’s across the board … and so I’m just wondering if training might be more of an answer than this intervention type of thing and if that might have a lower price tag and/or be readily available,” Lehman said.
Low said he’s not sure if the term “intervention” represents the right connotation.
“I think for me anyway, I’m seeing all of us needing to have greater appreciation for each other,” Low said. “Quite frankly, Councilor Andrade and Councilor Biscoe are bringing some new ideas and a lot of different perspective to this council and I think they extend more dialogue.”
Low said it’s not appropriate to spend time on those matters during meetings and work sessions because there is city business to get done but presented another possibility.
“Some sort of dedicated retreat if you will where we can get together and just talk respectfully to each other, listen to each other, be able to explain maybe how we feel about things …,” he said. “It is kind of getting to the touchy, feely kind of thing maybe, getting into how we relate to each other but I think it’s an important process.”
Causey asked that if the LOC program could represent that approach.
“They can provide the tool or the process, the environment, hopefully a safe space to be able to do this, but it’s going to be up to us to decide whether or not that’s really successful or not,” Low said.
Workman plans to approach LOC about breaking up the event from a full day into a couple of sessions or on the weekend and if any such changes would impact cost. He also plans to see if referrals on the LOC program are available and complete other research based on questions that came up during Monday night’s talk.
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