Dean Aithwaite, Willamette Valley First Responder Chaplains, gives a presentation at Monday night's Philomath City Council meeting. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Establishing a new housing committee, considering the possibility of driving golf carts around town, studying pedestrian connectivity, setting synthetic turf standards and coming up with a way to protect city trees all received approval from the Philomath City Council as additions or revisions to objectives in the city’s 2023-24 Strategic Plan.

Meeting for its regular monthly meeting Monday evening at City Hall, the council took advantage of an opportunity to tweak the plan, which is considered to be a living document reviewed annually and adjusted as needed each quarter.

The Strategic Plan features five themes — responsive, effective and transparent governance, healthy economy, strong and resilient infrastructure, great neighborhoods and safe community.

Councilor Matt Lehman as part of the great neighborhoods theme proposed the creation of a housing ad-hoc committee to review and weigh in on different opportunities to promote affordable housing in Philomath. Lehman suggested that the committee consist of three councilors and representatives from the community — “whether that’s from housing providers or other interested parties to bring their lens to the view.”

The city has two properties in town that could be possible candidates for affordable housing, including a half-acre lot on the corner of Main Street and North 20th Street purchased earlier this year. Mayor Chas Jones said those discussions were candidates to appear on a future Finance and Administration Committee meeting agenda.

However, councilors decided that it wanted to take a look at forming a separate committee that focuses specifically on housing. Councilors Christopher McMorran and Jessica Andrade both spoke in favor of the idea.

The formation of an ad-hoc committee on housing was added as a Strategic Plan objective under the city’s affordable housing goal on a 5-0 vote (councilors Diane Crocker and Teresa Nielson absent).

Lehman had another suggestion under the great neighborhoods theme with the desire to study the possibility of expanding the use of electric vehicles in the community.

“I think it would be awesome if people could run errands in a golf cart or a smaller vehicle that’s not a highway-safe vehicle but would still be licensed and registered and street legal on segments of the street that are 35 miles an hour or lower posted,” Lehman said. “So you could drive around in town here but you couldn’t drive all the way to Safeway, as an example, in your golf cart. But if you want to drive to Dollar General to get some sour cream for dinner, you don’t have to fire up the F-350 to go do that — you can jump into your golf cart instead.”

Lehman said he spent time in Galveston, Texas, in the last year where golf courts are routinely used in the community.

“I think it would be good for the community but also I think it puts forward the statement that we actually care about reducing carbon emissions here,” Lehman said. “I know we’ve been working on the carbon friendly spaces initiative from the state. I think something like this just brings it to the top of people’s minds that there are alternatives to driving your car around town.”

City Attorney Jim Brewer said local governments can create an ordinance that allows low-speed vehicles (defined as those with a speed of no more than 25 mph) to operate in the public right-of-way as long as those streets fall within the speed limit for the vehicle.

“The safety of the people in the vehicles and the rest of the people driving regular cars is paramount,” Lehman said. “What I’m recommending is that the Police Committee looks into that to see what we can and can’t do and if it’s feasible.”

The council voted unanimously to add the objective to the Strategic Plan.

McMorran expressed his desire to see the city prioritize an effort to improve pedestrian connectivity in the city. An objective in the current Strategic Plan is to “make Philomath a safe place to walk, bike and drive” but McMorran wants to take the issue further with an action item that focuses on realistic and specific possibilities for pedestrians.

City Manager Chris Workman said it might be more appropriate to update the Parks and Trails Master Plan with the issue to be discussed among the Park Advisory Board members as part of a process to start looking at recommendations on future projects and connectivity issues.

“I don’t know if anyone’s looked at the trails that they recommend in the Parks and Trails Master Plan or have gone to try and actually look at where they’d be — some of them make no sense,” McMorran said.

McMorran provided an example involving a possible connecting path between Pioneer Park and Triangle Park that he said appears to be infeasible. 

“I am a big proponent of respecting these master plans but when I actually looked at the master plan, I was like, ‘oh, this is never going to happen,’” he added.

But beyond parks and recreation, McMorran pointed out that his main focus relates to more functional ways for people to get around town on foot from Point A to Point B — a transportation connectivity issue.

In the end, the council voted to update the Strategic Plan with a revised objective on walking, biking and driving safety to also include “improve pedestrian connectivity in the city.”

On the issue of synthetic turf, Councilor Ruth Causey said she heard from people recently with concerns, such as microplastics released into the environment, on the heels of the council’s discussions about what surface to install at the new veterans memorial park.

Causey felt the issue should be looked into further and suggested that the Public Works Committee come up with recommendations for possible incorporation into city code “with respect to materials that should or should not be used.”

The council unanimously added the objective on a 5-0 vote.

A final addition to the Strategic Plan as suggested by Causey was to add an objective to develop an ordinance to protect city trees.

In other news out of the Nov. 13 meeting:

• Julie Jackson, Republic Services municipal relations manager, spent about 10 minutes before city councilors to provide an update on the trash collection service’s presence in Philomath. Republic Services will implement customer rate increases of 4.06% for residential, 3.86% for commercial and 4.95% for industrial, Jackson said. The increases are calculated out of the latest refuse rate index numbers. Asked by a councilor if she could speak to the future of the Coffin Butte landfill, Jackson said she could not and followed with generalized comments. Said Jackson, “We’re kind of under a gag order right now until things get started.” Jackson was not on the published meeting agenda but spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting.

• Dean Aithwaite, Willamette Valley First Responder Chaplains, gave a 15-minute presentation on his organization, including information about work with veterans. Aithwaite shared personal information about his own battle with post traumatic stress.

• The council approved a consent agenda that included minutes from three October meetings and renewal of a low-income utility assistance agreement with Community Services Consortium after learning about additional state funding that has become available. Workman said 36 households in Philomath utilize the program.

• The council discussed whether it should endorse an organization’s movement for the state to approve Indigenous Peoples Day as a paid holiday and non-school day for staff, students and public workers in Oregon. All five councilors present provided input and in the end, the council delegated Jones and Andrade, who chairs the Inclusivity Committee, to engage with tribal leaders on the issue.

• The council unanimously approved with no discussion to hire Ivers, Miller & Mazhary-Clark for prosecution services and Beery, Elsner & Hammond for city attorney services. Assistant City Manager Chelsea Starner recommended moving to the new prosecutor before the end of the year. Brewer will remain in place through the end of March. In a separate vote, the council approved the authorization of the city manager to execute a personal services agreement with Ivers, Miller & Mazhary-Clark.

• The council approved a plan to conduct an online community satisfaction survey.

• The council approved a revised irrigation utility rate with the Philomath School District to correct an unintended increase that had occurred in July.

• The council approved to financially support two activities in support of Black History Month in February. Details on the programs are to be finalized — one involving a presentation by resident Zina Allen about growing up Black in Philomath and the other featuring a screening of “Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting On Two Fronts” with a question-and-answer session with filmmaker Dru Holley and Oregon Black Pioneers Executive Director Zachary Stocks.

• The council began the evening with an executive session to discuss issues related employment, performance evaluations and legal advice.

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.

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