City Council meetings over the past few years often include questions and challenges about transparency when it comes to the various issues and decisions that go through City Hall. Some believe that the city has gone to great lengths to try to communicate effectively with the public. Others think that much more can be done to try to involve citizens in the process.
So where do the candidates stand on this issue?
This is the fourth of a five-part series of questions and answers to be published this week at PhilomathNews.com. The nine candidates running for the Philomath City Council include incumbents Jessica Andrade, Catherine Biscoe, Ruth Causey, Matt Lehman, David Low and Teresa Nielson, and challengers Diane Crocker, Christopher McMorran and Peggy Yoder.
For more information, the Benton County Elections Office uploaded each candidate’s filing form. Information on the forms include details on occupation, educational background and prior governmental experience. Click here for Andrade. Click here for Biscoe. Click here for Causey. Click here for Crocker. Click here for Lehman. Click here for Low. Click here for McMorran. Click here for Nielson. Click here for Yoder.
In addition, the Benton County Voters’ Pamphlet is available here.
This is the fourth of five questions asked of the candidates. Each candidate was allowed no more than 200 words for each individual answer with no exceptions. Answers were edited only for punctuation and typos and to conform to newspaper style guidelines (abbreviations, capitalization, etc.).
City government transparency concerns seem to occasionally surface. Do you believe transparency is an issue? If so, what would you do to fix it? If not, what do you think the city is doing that’s working?
YODER: I do believe transparency is an issue. That is why I recently requested a longer audio/visual retention period for meetings be presented to the City Council. The council reviewed the request and we now retain audio recordings for all meetings for five years; this is a good example of what works to keep our decision making visible to the community.
The public deserves to know the details on how decisions are made. When conversations between parties are not held in the public view, it can erode public confidence in elected and appointed officials.
Our community members should feel confident that all codes, ordinances and conditions of approval are met before a builder/developer is allowed to commence work. The council needs to be kept well informed to avoid surprises. It should not be up to a community member to point out when discrepancies are found and repeated requests for action can further erode the confidence in our city government. However, once discrepancies are exposed, or any accusations have been made, it is the duty of the City Council and mayor to seriously review, discuss and make a decision on the matter using an open format.
NIELSON: Truly, transparency is a pertinent characteristic of effective governance. It is an important communicative tool to inform, enlighten and engage the community. From my experience, the city is doing an amazing job of utilizing a wide variety of communication modes to reach out, to educate and to inform community members on the city events, meetings and policies.
Notwithstanding, it is a work in progress. Currently, the monthly Philomath city newsletter is mailed with the utility bills, and/or sent electronically via email and includes articles on all city business, projects, events, public hearings, survey links, Philomath city YouTube account information and a calendar of all upcoming city and community events. The form and function of our city website has recently been improved making it more user-friendly with pertinent links throughout its pages to facilitate the dissemination of all city-related and community information. In regard to social media, our city maintains an active Facebook page offering a wide variety of community information and announcements.
Transparency in government should always be a topic of conversation and policy in conjunction with effective communication and efficiency.
MCMORRAN: This brings me back to proactive outreach and communication. I think city government has a transparency problem, but not an intentional one. Like many bureaucratic entities, all the information you need is there — it can just be a nightmare to navigate the system and get the answers you need in a timely fashion.
That can make city government seem opaque and unwelcoming, especially to folks who aren’t used to navigating those systems. City councilors can help constituents navigate that system, but we need to go beyond that (and we need to make sure that residents know who their city councilors are so they can reach them!).
I think the city needs to do a better job of direct outreach and communication with residents on issues that pertain to them, instead of expecting them to navigate those issues all by themselves. Through the use of mailings, door hangers and business postings, door-to-door discussions with affected residents and an official city presence at community events, we can help break down the barriers to effective civic engagement in our community. We can and must do more outside of City Council meetings to listen to our community and help them navigate city government.
LOW: City government transparency is in the eye of the beholder. As evident in the city’s public record (which in itself is a source of city meeting transparency), there is a clear difference of opinion. I do not believe transparency is an issue in Philomath.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines transparency: “Characterized by visibility or accessibility of information, especially concerning business practices.” City staff puts considerable effort into informing the public about city affairs, opportunities for participation on city committees, the educational Citizen’s Academy and other civic activities.
Information is conveyed through the city’s website, social media, and weekly e-mailings to folks who have signed up (What’s happening in Philomath this week?), the reader board in Dale Collins Park, town halls (just one so far this year), among others.
Oregon’s public meeting statutes require open access. The only exception under law is a City Council executive session. However even then, members of the news media are permitted as impartial outside observers.
Residents may attend city meetings in person, witness live via YouTube, watch a recorded version, read meeting minutes, and access a detailed transcript.
LEHMAN: I believe that transparency can be an issue with local government, but I do not think that transparency is a major issue in Philomath. I also believe that we as community members have a responsibility to inform ourselves, just as the government has a responsibility to share their activities whenever possible.
The City Council has recently made some updates to the comprehensive plan to increase community awareness about, and involvement in, land use decisions moving forward. In order for those measures to be effective the community will have to participate in the process by attending public hearings, submitting opinions, etc.
CROCKER: Generally speaking I do not think transparency is a big problem. I have followed the City Council over the years and generally their thoughts and decisions have been clear and understandable. With a few exceptions, I would say the city government is doing well in this area. The current housing issues, and at times what seems like a push to disrupt the forward progress of the council, would be exceptions.
Mistakes have been made, and while we must own it, we must also work together to find solutions. I do not believe the current council as a whole are working together for progress. As I have watched some meetings get off track and dissolve into personal tirades, vendettas or finger pointing, nitpicking about commas and word choice, I think we can do better.
CAUSEY: I do not believe government transparency is a major issue. Where concerns arise, they seem to focus on specific conversations or exchanges. Over the last five years, the city has responded to every request to improve transparency by recording all public meetings, producing minutes on a timely basis and improving sound quality and audio-visual projection capabilities.
The city responded to COVID by creating the opportunity to participate in and view meetings on Zoom, Facebook or YouTube, and recently improved records retention by replacing closed captioning with the five-year retention of audio recordings. Anyone wishing to watch, listen to, attend or participate in public meetings has a variety of options for doing so.
It’s difficult to imagine what more could be done to improve transparency, but whatever the request, I am confident the city will respond effectively.
BISCOE: A reason I first ran as a city councilor was to improve transparency in government. I found that as a taxpaying resident of Philomath, I was unable to get public information without difficulty, if at all, and that my questions were met with disregard and even hostility. As a councilor I was surprised to find this to be even more true.
Transparency refers to the ways in which a government allows the public access to how a city conducts its public business. This includes how a city spends tax dollars, makes and enforces its laws and policies, and how the city operates as a whole. Transparency also allows the public access to information on how elected and appointed officials conduct themselves.
Public information such as budget planning, budget expenditures, staff salary and compensation reporting, information on land use decisions, statistical reports and procedure questions should not be elusive and difficult to access. Being denied this kind of basic information can lead to mistrust in local government.
Improving transparency first starts with intent. Providing better access to records, reports and expenditures is done by many of Philomath’s neighboring cities and is a great place to start.
ANDRADE: Yes, city government transparency is an issue. As a current city councilor, it is a problem that I fairly regularly need to send multiple emails for requests I have made during city meetings. Sometimes my emails requesting information are unanswered for a month or more. Sometimes I cannot find relevant information where I should be able to online. If I cannot find the information I am looking for on the city’s website or have a difficult time obtaining it, it is probably not more easily available to other members of our community.
The good news is that there has been some adaptation to the changing communication needs and recommendations from our community by the city. We have a better website, weekly city emails have more readable formatting, meetings are livestreamed, we have hybrid meeting capabilities and more. I greatly appreciate these efforts and we can continue to improve communication efforts in support of improving transparency.
Other ways to improve transparency that I will continue to advocate for include adding monthly updates of the city’s financial expenditures to the city’s website and council meeting packets, and asking community members for their ideas and the information they would like to see regularly.
Coming Friday: Many in the community believe that the candidates have associated themselves with certain other candidates whether it’s through advertising, yard signs or other means. What are your thoughts on these perceived alliances, including the pros and cons of this election strategy?