This is another installment in a Gazette-Times series of stories looking back at the top stories of 2017.
A year into its two-year term the 2017-18 Corvallis City Council appears to be feeling the wear and tear of some marathon meetings, parleys over priorities, new procedures and the perennial issue of weaving new members into the flow.
When asked by the Gazette-Times to name the council’s greatest accomplishments AND unmet challenges for 2017, many clearly struggled with the questions. The six councilors — and Mayor Biff Traber — who responded came up with a wide variety of positives (streets initiatives, public safety, the new strategic operational plan, the beginnings of an urban renewal strategy for South Corvallis and budget and priorities work).
But the issue on which they said they had the most trouble making progress … was making progress. Traber and his councilors kept using words such as “slow” or expressions like “moving more quickly.”
Traber: “I would like to have made more progress on housing-related policy issues.”
Penny York (Ward 1): “I’m disappointed that we haven’t been able to move more quickly on the next steps on initiatives that council had worked on last year” such as housing and completing the vision and climate projects.
Bill Glassmire (Ward 7): “There are several issues on which I wish there had been more progress,” mentioning climate, vision and relations between the city and Oregon State University.”
Nancy Wyse (Ward 6): “I feel we have tackled some big projects (vision, climate and strategic plan) but were slow in implementation and (they) are still on-going.”
Such concerns also were reflected in the anonymous self-evaluations councilors reviewed at a Dec. 7 work session. The evaluation session was scheduled for 70 minutes, but the group only got through three of the 11 categories in the time slot and a second session is on for Jan. 4. The evaluation documents (see the full text online) included comments, also anonymous, from city staff, with the overall tone of the report — and the discussion — constructive but largely negative.
And sometimes a bit bruising.
Councilor comment: “We are not as far along as we should be in both policy review and making priorities.”
Staff comment: “Council has been working to establish priorities but seems to be struggling to actually select & agree on top ones.”
Comments from councilors and staff on the impact of four new councilors — Hyatt Lytle (Ward 3), Charlyn Ellis (Ward 5), Wyse and Mark Page (Ward 8) — sparked candid exchanges at the work session.
Councilor comment on priorities and processes: “This is a challenge with four new councilors who want to change processes before they fully understand our work.”
Staff comment: “It is concerning when initiatives that were set into motion by the previous council as a result of great community process and expense are not fully respected by new councilors as worthy of continuing.”
Wyse took the lead in challenging the comments.
“I’m tired of hearing that,” she said. “It might be that we just have a different opinion.”
Lytle agreed, arguing that the council was “hierarchical.”
“New councilors have not been taken as seriously as the other councilors,” Lytle said.
York offered a response.
“I’m going to speak frankly here because I realize that this is a serious issue,” said York, who is in her third term on the council. “I don’t think it’s a case of new councilors not being up to the job.”
York said that issues such as reviewing the council packet and asking questions effectively were skills she was more adept at displaying in her second year.
“The question is how does work move forward when folks still are getting up to speed?" York said. "And I would encourage you not to think of it as criticism of individual councilors.”
The newbies had a champion in nine-term veteran Hal Brauner of Ward 9, who noted that with four new councilors elected in 2014 and 2016 that six of the nine now serving are freshmen or sophomores, politically speaking.
“This council has come together and worked together better than other councils I have worked on,” Brauner said. “I appreciate the freshmen’s contributions and their work abilities.”
Brauner added that the strategic operational plan advocated by City Manager Mark Shepard “is new to all of us at a time when we’ve had major issues from day one. You had to hit the term running.”
City staff chimes in
Staffers, meanwhile, had some thoughts on why progress sometimes stalled on the continuing goals of vision and climate. And why staff and councilor roles need to be clearly defined.
Topics get discussed at “multiple meetings (limiting time that can be allocated to new topics), repeated requests for more information and no decisions,” wrote one.
“Many issues are sent back for more staff work, more discussions and more work,” wrote another.
“There are instances in which the council and mayor want to be involved in operational and executive details rather than staying at the policy level,” reads a third entry.
“Meetings are not conducted in an efficient manner,” reads a fourth.
“Councilors … wander down rabbit holes that do not aid in making a decision,” reads a fifth.
Two councilors also expressed concerns about working relationships involving Ward 4 Councilor Barbara Bull, the council president. One noted tension between Bull and Traber. The other said that Bull “is not treated as though she is the council president.”
The issue was not discussed at the work session.
At one point in the work session exchange, Ellis noted “we have an imbalance in voices being expressed here.”
Neither Page nor Ward 2 Councilor Roen Hogg spoke during the 70 minutes of discussions. The minutes for the meeting do not itemize individual comments from councilors. A Gazette-Times tally shows that Wyse spoke eight times, Ellis, Bull, Traber and Shepard five times apiece, York four, Brauner and Lytle twice and Glassmire once.