The old saying that “The tension was so thick, you could cut it with a knife” was probably the best way to describe the atmosphere during the Lincoln City City Council meeting Monday night. The meeting agenda was pretty light and so there was plenty of opportunity for “painfully polite,” but forceful discourse between city councilors and those who were vehement political supporters of Mayor Don Williams.
It was all about last week’s State Ethics Commission dismissal of the council’s list of complaints against Mayor Williams.
Supporting the dismissal was an observation by the Commission’s investigator that there were gaps in the minutes and audio recordings by the city attorney as part of the package of complaints. The reasoning behind the Commission’s decision appeared also to be based on a suspicion, noted by the investigator, that the city attorney was possibly closely involved with the issues outlined in the complaints.
There were other complicated observations that led the investigator to recommend to the Commission that a preliminary investigation produced little justification for a full blown investigation of the situation.
At the opening of the council meeting, local property owner Jim Hoover – a long time critic of the current and past city councils, claimed the entire complaint process was unjustified – that the $25,000 spent on trying to pin something untrue on the mayor wasted both time and money. “A fishing expedition – a witch hunt,” Hoover said. He went on to strongly imply that he believed the council was funneling more money into another investigation that seeks to pin anything it can on the mayor. The council did not respond to his statement.
In reaction, Councilor Susan Wahlke defended the council’s action claiming that the Mayor had violated the confidentiality inherent in a particular council executive session, assumedly referring to the Mayor being accused of violating vacation rental rules and then going home and telling his wife who is also his business partner. That complaint was addressed in the Ethics Commission preliminary report in that being informed of a violation of a city code in executive session does not make it a confidential statement. Rather, it is a law enforcement matter subject to public information. The Ethics Commission investigator strongly implied that such statements are not covered by executive session standards of what is confidential information. So there was no violation, in the eyes of the investigator and the Ethics Commission agreed with him.
City Councilor Chester Noreikis said the city council was obligated by its duty to the public and to comply with state law to forward to the Ethics Commission the evidence as the council understood it to be. Noreikis reiterated that it was the council’s decision to forward the information to the Ethics Commission – the city attorney did not make that decision. Noreikis then stated that when an employee, in good faith, brings an allegation to the council, the council has to properly consider and forward the information to the Ethics Commission or any other appropriate agency. He strongly implied that to retaliate against the city attorney (as some among the public are demanding) for just doing his job would invite legal action against the city council that could be very expensive. In short, the council acted on the information – much of which it had seen, first hand for themselves, and believed that it violated government ethics.
Meanwhile Hoover complained that the council misunderstands the recent vote to repeal the council’s reforms on VRD regulations. Hoover said a majority of Lincoln City voters struck down those reforms because they didn’t like them or didn’t understand them. Councilor Dick Anderson disagreed and contended the vote struck down only the reforms, not the remaining regulations that limit the number of nights a vacation rental can be rented if it’s inside regular neighborhoods. In a recent city council meeting Mayor Williams said the main problem is having any limitations on the number of nights a vacation rental can be rented no matter where they’re allowed in the city.
City Manager Ron Chandler directed the discussion to a task the council must tackle in light of the recent public vote against the earlier reforms – how to interpret the still intact “Accessory Use” restrictions that limit the number of nights a vacation rental can be legally rented in single family residential areas. The council decided to begin those discussions at City Hall on November 2nd, starting at 3pm. And it may take more than one meeting to reach a consensus. And of course, the voters are likely to again have their say on whatever that consensus is, or is not.
The recently repealed reforms took nearly four years to adopt using an array of citizen committees, guided by a consultant and after many long hours of review and decision-making by the city councils over those years.