Here we go again. It seems to have become a predictable routine that every few months, and sometimes more often, the Chronicle writes an editorial pointing out problems in The Dalles City Council’s decision-making process.
Once again, we reiterate that this newspaper isn’t “out to get them,” we are simply fulfilling our watchdog role to make sure elected officials are operating in an open and transparent manner — and putting the needs of citizens before their own wants and desires.
It is the duty of the media — so essential to freedom that speech was protected in the First Amendment — to alert the public when government leaders are not serving them correctly.
This week’s problem stemmed from an 11th-hour request floated by Mayor Steve Lawrence to have the council pay off a $3,641 debt owed by the Civic Auditorium to spare the nonprofit from making interest payments.
As soon as Councilors Darcy Long-Curtiss and Russ Brown expressed concerns about not having enough time to fully consider the request, it should have been set over to the next meeting and listed on the agenda.
“I didn’t have a chance to see this ahead of time,” said Curtiss-Long. “I think for the public, people want to know what’s on our agenda.”
She added that the council needed more time to consider the ramifications of that type of financial issue.
Brown told the mayor he also wasn’t comfortable moving ahead since the council had just received the proposal that afternoon.
At that point, Lawrence chose to go on the offensive, as he so often does.
“You’re making an issue of this,” he said. “If you don’t want to approve it, then say you don’t want to approve it.”
Long-Curtiss and Brown are to be commended for breaking free of the collectivism that has pervaded the council the past four years and expressing themselves as independent thinkers. Unfortunately, they didn’t stand on their principles when it came time to vote, and joined the rest of the council, who predictably did what the mayor wanted.
Long-Curtiss or Brown should have made a motion to push the question to the July 24 agenda, rather than simply voting to support the payment.
Making sure there is ample time to review information and comment is a critical part of a representative democracy. Especially when the city has faced criticism time and time again for playing favorites when it comes to doling out funds (and buildings).
And that brings us to the second point of this editorial.
The mayor is seated on the board of directors for the Civic, which he failed to disclose when passing along the funding proposal. While it is not illegal for Lawrence to ask for money to benefit his cause, it looks bad when he acts like he is just the messenger.
Oregon law requires officials to declare a conflict when they or a business they are involved with would financially benefit from the decision they are making. However, a nonprofit does not fall under the category of business, according to the Oregon Ethics Commission office.
If he didn’t have to do by llaw, why should Lawrence have declared his involvement with the Civic? And given people time to comment on the funding request? Following are some good reasons:
• It is the council’s duty to make sure that anyone who felt the city was showing favoritism had the opportunity to express those concerns.
• How many nonprofits in town might have liked to have the same opportunity? Has the city set another precedent where “winners and losers” are selected based on their likeability to a member of the council?
• Is making a spontaneous decision about the use of funds in the best interests of taxpayers?
The money to fulfill Lawrence’s request comes from Google’s negotiated fees in exchange for tax breaks tied to their new development.
The funding request was small, but the issue isn’t. How will the council justify refusing the next nonprofit request if it is to rightfully show impartiality?
The city needs to follow uniform policies when it is making decisions like this; otherwise, the questions over governance will continue. We’ll certainly be asking them.
— R.R., M.G.