The Astoria City Council held an emergency meeting Friday morning at the request of interim city manager Brett Estes to discuss an ongoing issue between councilor Drew Herzig and city staff that indicates violations of established policy and, perhaps, the city charter.
The city has specific policies regarding councilor contacts with city employees in order to avoid the impression that an individual member of the council is giving staff directives. Those policies are used by the League of Oregon Cities to train newly elected officials in how to properly conduct business and have been adopted by the Astoria City Council. Under the city charter the City Manager, or those department heads directly under the City Manager, are the only people in the organization that may direct staff. The city manager is then under the directive of the city council as a whole. Councilor Herzig has been breaking those rules according to the discussion during Friday's emergency meeting to air the matter in open session. According to one city councilor, Herzig's behavior goes beyond city staff.
Brett Estes, acting city manager, asked for the meeting because of an incident on Monday at city hall involving Herzg, himself and, city engineer Jeff Harrington. Estes recounted the incident saying that following the last city council meeting Herzig had contacted Harrington directly asking to meet with him after some discussion at the council session about a local road issue. Estes said that Harrington told him he did not wish to meet alone with Herzig. Estes contacted Herzig and offered to set up a meeting where he would include himself along with Harrington. The response from Herzig was that if Estes had to be there he didn't want the meeting. Estes said that Harrington had so many requests for meetings from Herzig that it had become a sensitive issue. Estes said he emailed Herzig, told him that he would be happy to arrange a meeting with himself and Harrington. Herzig replied that he saw no need for Estes to be there. Estes wrote back that Harrington had requested it and that he would be there. At the appointed time Estes said he and Harrington went to the meeting room together. Herzig was already there and objected to Estes being present. Herzig then said if Estes stayed there would be no meeting. Estes then asked Harrington to excuse himself so that Estes could talk with Herzig one-on-one. Herzig again objected and walked out. Estes followed in an attempt to explain. Harrington then offered to meet one-on-one with councilor Herzig but also wanted Herzig to stay after that meeting to discuss policy issues with Estes. Herzig said if Estes joined the meeting that he would leave.
Estes allowed the one-on-one and then said, in hindsight, that was a mistake on his part. He said he should have cancelled the meeting at that point.
Mayor Van Dusen then asked Herzig if he wanted to comment. Herzig stated that there were a number of misunderstandings.
Herzig said he had been discussing traffic issues with Harrington and didn't realize it was becoming problematic. Herzig said that when Paul Benoit was city manager he had told him that he and Harrington shared a "fascination with traffic. crosswalks, signage, and that sort of thing" he said he didn't understand that the conversations were upsetting for Harrington. He said that he asked for the Monday meeting to apologise for comments at the city council meeting that he had heard had upset Harrington. He said the meeting was not intended to give direction or move an issue forward. He said he did not get the email from Estes saying that Harrington had requested Estes be at that meeting. That doesn't explain why Herzig objected even after he was told face-to-face. Herzig then said he would have contacted Harrington outside of work hours if he had his contact information. He stated further that he had no recollection of being told that Estes would join the meeting following his one-on-one with Harrington. Herzig said he had no idea why the matter had turned into an emergency council meeting.
Mayor van Dusen asked Estes if there had been any similar issues with other council members. Estes said there had not been issues with other members of the city council, but that there had been other issues with councilor Herzig directly contacting staff asking for one-on-one meetings and gave city finance director John Snyder, and parks department staff as examples.
Herzig said he wasn't aware that those contacts were any kind of violation of procedure. He assume that, like any citizen, he could drop by and talk with staff about information about certain things or to follow up on a project he had been involved with. He said the policy seems bizarre to him as does bringing these contacts up as "incidents"
Councilor Arlene Lamear said that the League of Oregon Cities makes it clear that anything councilors do should go through the city manager. She said to do otherwise is to take valuable time from those department heads, or from the staff. 'We should be trusting their expertise and their professionalism. that's what we hired them for." Lamear added 'for us to be gong in many, many times a week, or many times a month...That all adds up. We have to be careful that we aren't making their jobs a whole lot harder. That's not our purpose."
The bombshell was delivered by councilor Karen Mellin who told the council that Herzig's behavior has not been limited to city staff. "My concern is not just with city employees, but with the Director of Clatsop Community Action, George Sabol" She said, explaining "The board of Directors of Clatsop Community Action have expressed concerns about a visit by councilor Herzig to George Sabol's office some months ago." Mellin then gave Herzig the opportunity to tell the council what took place at that meeting. Herzig denied he had any meeting with Sabol, and said he did not go to Sabol's office. Mellin then said "It was when (cong) Suzanne Bonamici was here. Sabol came up to me and said you (Herzig) came to his office and demanded that he change his policies. He said you shouted at him, banged on his desk, and you humiliated him." Sabol had volunteered his agency to run a program for low income water bill assistance for the city of Astoria and at a recent council meeting reported that very few people had actually applied. The program is one championed by Herzig. "I've known Sabol for a long, long time and he is a real gentleman" said Mellin " He would not make something like this up."
Herzig called it heresay saying that Sabol wasn't at the emergency meeting. Neither was Jeff Harrington, for that matter. He denied that the incident with Sabol ever happened. Herzig interupted Mellin saying that she was giving misinformation. Mayor van Dusen stopped the conversation insisting that the discussion remain confined to the city employee discussion. Mellin finsihed her comments saying that "if wee all were going to staff it would be chaos here. We have a protocol to follow and I think it's imperative that we follow it."
Councilor Russ Warr stated that he had heard, repeatedly over the last several months that Herzig had brought pressure to act on staff in a variety of different ways. Herzig made no denials. Warrr quoted the city charter "No council member may directly, or indirectly by suggestion, or otherwise attempt to influence the Manager, or candidate for the office of Manager in the appointment, supervision, discipline, or removal of personnel or in decisions regarding city property or contracts" he added "The charter is clear that the city council are policy makers for the city and it should be crystal clear that meeting with city staff without the blessings of the city manager is absolutely forbidden."
Estes said that staff contact with the city council is part of day to day business in the city of Astoria and he said he has no issue with city employees contacting council members. He said that there may be instances when a council member has a policy question and Estes may then direct that question to a particular departmenbt head with expertise in that area.
Herzig said he resented what he described as the second-hand information that was being presented and that he expects if a staff member has an issue with him to contact him and the city manager to work it out rather than having an emergency city council meeting which he referred to as a 'trial court". At one point Herzig apologised that the council was taking up time with the issue. The Mayor stated that it is an important issue and worth the time.
The meeting ended after the council took a unanimous vote to reaffirm city policies regarding council contacts with city employees