It’s pretty rare that a city’s heavyweights would all be up for replacement at the same time. But it’s happening in Newport. An embattled city manager has left, a long-haul-commuter city finance director has taken another job, and from the looks of it, the city’s contract with a law firm based in Eugene is on very thin ice.
This week the city council got an update from Interim City Manager Ted Smith (on loan from the library) outlining a plan by which the city will fill at least two of those slots – city manager and finance director. Consulting head-hunter Bob Gibson of Lincoln City is already conducting a search for a new city manager. And now the council has additionally tasked him with finding the city’s next finance director.
In the meantime the council has hired Robert Gazewood of Warrenton to fill in as Interim Finance Director for up to six months until a permanent replacement can be hired. Mr. Gazewood, partly serving at city hall, partly from home, will cost the city in the neighborhood of $70,000.
Timelines for having a new city manager and finance director look to be similar – five months.
In the meantime relations between the city council and the city’s contract law firm Speer Hoyt appear to have cooled considerably. The firm was originally hired under Mayor Mark McConnell’s administration in an effort to save the city a substantial amount of money over the cost of a full-time in house city attorney. Despite some disagreement over exactly how much has been saved, the council has lived with the arrangement for the past year-plus – but less happily so over the past couple of months. The council expressed dismay that Speer Hoyt demanded that invoices for legal services rendered to the city be simply stamped for payment without any city councilor seeing the invoices. Interim City Manager Ted Smith confided that the firm was afraid the council might reveal them to the public even though there was “confidential” information on them. City Councilor David Allen, himself an attorney, challenged that observation adding that fee-for-service invoices need not contain any confidential information. He added, “Paying for invoices not reviewable by the city council violates our duty to the public to do our job – of exercising our due diligence.” City Clerk Recorder Peggy Hawker, well versed on state laws pertaining to public records and confidentiality, released the invoices to the council.
There has also been council consternation over Speer Hoyt’s handling of recent allegations of city councilor misbehavior at the airport – supposedly causing a hostile work environment there. After an outside investigation was conducted, which found no official misconduct by the councilors, Speer Hoyt, none-the-less, did not want to release the findings to the public other than to use informal statements about the findings. Speer Hoyt claimed there were elements in the report that could potentially create legal complications for the city down the road. But they also admitted that the potential was not great.
The council was livid. They directed City Clerk Recorder Peggy Hawker to write a one page summary of the investigation and to submit it to Speer Hoyt for review and approval. A Speer Hoyt attorney replied that it could not be done because only the attorney specifically assigned to Newport could review it and she was on vacation for two weeks in Europe. The council shot back that the attorney frequently consulted with other attorneys in the firm on many city matters, and that there was no reason for any further delay.
Speer Hoyt relented. Ms. Hawker’s one page summary was submitted to Speer Hoyt, reviewed and came back without a word of it being altered.
City Councilor David Allen typically functions as the council’s “quality control” monitor on city attorney services. He said although Speer Hoyt’s legal performance for the city has been otherwise quite good, it may be time to consider other legal options for the city, including the hiring of an in house attorney or simply hiring a local attorney on a contract basis. Several other councilors have also expressed such an interest.