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Newport City Councilors push for better council communications with city attorney

Although they expressed themselves very politely during Monday’s workshop meeting, a number of Newport City Councilors made it clear that they are not happy with their level of access to, or communications with contract City Attorney Christy Monson. Monson, part of a Eugene law firm, found herself in the awkward position of trying to likewize politely referee the debate between councilors David Allen, Dean Sawyer, Dick Beemer, Sandra Roumagoux on one side, and Mayor Mark McConnell and Lon Brusselback on the other. Brussleback said he was satisfied with the situation adding “I help make policy; it’s not my job to be involved with the day to day business of the city.” McConnell has also supported the current communications arrangement which is designed to keep the city’s billable hours with the city attorney to a minimum while the council sticks to making policy rather than being active in daily city operations.

However, councilors Allen, Sawyer, Beemer and Roumagoux all said, in effect, they feel left in the dark when certain legal recommendations are offered or decisions are made, with Monson’s assent, by City Manager Jim Voetberg, and the council isn’t informed. One example was Voetberg recently reversing the council’s decision to award a police car maintenance contract to a local tire and repair shop. Councilor Beemer said he took his own car to be worked on at the garage in question and told the owner, “Hey, glad you got the contract.” Beemer said “Imagine my embarrassment when he said, ‘the contract was pulled. We didn’t get it.'” Voetberg chimed in saying that the contract was pulled because another garage that filed a competing bid claimed prejudice in the way their bid was evaluated, “so we pulled it,” Voetberg said.

City Councilor David Allen strongly suggested that the council should have at least been sent an email, notifying them of the reversal. City Attorney Christy Monson disagreed. “That decision is rightly left to the discretion of the city manager. I can’t order him to tell you. That’s an issue of judgement that traditionally lies with city staff.” Allen then suggested that when she is forwarding an opinion or critical observation on a substantive issue, to tell Voetberg to forward the information to city councilors. Monson replied that she prefers to stick with her firm’s policies on attorney-city communications, leaving it up to the chief of staff, in this case, Jim Voetberg to make that call. She said “it’s never a good idea to have sensitive legal emails ‘floating around out there’ hoping they don’t fall into the wrong hands or that a councilor inadvertently talks about it. Allen replied that nothing in connection with the police car maintenance award or reversal was confidential.

Voetberg offered an olive branch by re-characterizing the issue as within the discretion of his office in that such maintenance contracts are routinely authorized by staff without council involvement, much like buying supplies or contracting for important services. He said that next time he will pre-approve the apparent lowest bid, wait until after the legally required seven day appeal period has passed, and if no appeal is filed, then he will forward the contract to the council for their concurrence.

Allen made it plain that he’s not asking for the council to be informed of every conversation between Monson and Voetberg, but that communications that the council has a duty to know about in order to make proper decisions, must be improved. Allen said later Monday night during the council’s regular meeting that when Monson was hired “provisionally,” the council agreed that Mayor McConnell and City Manager Voetberg should be the primary contacts for the city attorney. Allen said the somewhat restricted arrangement was to help keep the councilors off the phone with the city attorney so they didn’t run up the city’s legal bill. However, in light of what Allen called several communications problems, and the fact that Monson is no longer “provisional,” Allen said it may be time to re-examine the rules about council’s access to her. Mayor McConnell replied that the issue will be placed on the city council’s next meeting agenda.

 

 

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