Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Yesterday, shortly after posting my previous writing regarding the excellent workmanship of Astoria’s City Manager, I took a phone call from one of the city councilors who surprised me with her request.

City Councilor Cindy Price asked me if I really wanted to keep that piece posted on line because she said that the City Manager would read it and he might be unhappy with it.

 I pointed out that it isn’t my job to make him happy, or unhappy.

 She pointed out that the council was in discussion regarding his first year performance review and he might think my writing reflected what the council was talking about.

 Those discussions are behind closed doors in executive session where reporters may attend but are prohibited by law from reporting what they see or hear. The only reason I can even mention this now is that if a principal in that closed door discussion talks about it with a reporter outside that meeting the rules say that discussion is fair game to report.

With that provision in the law I could have let her continue our conversation, asked her questions that would have allowed me to report that closed door discussion in full, and then published it.

I stopped her.

I said that my writing is based on my personal observations of this city council in open session and years of reporting on these matters and have nothing whatever to do with closed council discussions.

And that’s true. Those observations made in yesterday’s post would be plainly evident to anyone who follows Astoria government. The opinions are purely mine alone.

Read it here and you see in it nothing of councilor opinion, or quotes of any kind.

 One of the key questions my conscience would not let me pursue would be: Why would anything in that piece offend Brett Estes?  By answering she could have easily violated that closed door discussion and I could be accused of reporting it.

One can certainly see where Price and Herzig might object to what I said about their behavior. She did not. Herzig has not, if he saw it at all.

 This naïve attempt to censor the press is troubling when it comes from someone who often talks “openness” and, the other popular catch word, “transparency” at any opportunity.

At last night’s Astoria City Council meeting Cindy Price mentioned that I hadn’t written on my blog is sometime. That’s true. I’ve been consumed by the effort to run the news department for this station group and keep up on social media and our station website news.

Today though I thought it might be interesting to explore what’s going on with the process of government in Astoria.

Many Astorians may not understand exactly how challenging this first year on the job has been for City Manager Brett Estes. He was doing triple duty for a long period of time as he began the complex project of building his government. He was, for months, City Manager and Community Development Director, and he had to handle city finances when the Finance Director left that position. These are all key roles and in each case those departments were dealing with great complexity.

For Community Development it was, and is, the implementation of the River Front Vision Plan with the help of Special Projects Planner Rosemary Johnson during some of the most controversial portions of that process. For Finance it was the peak of fiscal budget planning time, arguably one of the most important periods for that department. As City Manager he has been dealing with a new Mayor and new, inexperienced council members who still haven't decided exactly what their place in city process should be. Some, like Drew Herzig, really want to manage and think that's appropriate which is surprising considering just how often it's come up over the last two years-plus he has been in office and how often it has created problems. Some, like Cindy Price, tend to focus on minor details while failing to see the bigger picture. Mr Herzig loves to grandstand and takes the opportunity anytime he can grab the public spotlight. Far more troubling is the apparent effect of councilor Herzig on Mayor LaMear who is also experiencing what it's like to be in the drivers seat and seeking direction.

Through all this you never see Brett Estes sweat. He doesn't lose control.

He continues to build his government, and it is his make no mistake. He placates the council with agendas that are exceptionally detailed. He rarely expresses a personal opinion about what decisions the council may make.

He waits to be asked because he clearly understands the difference between what he was hired to do and what the council was elected to do.

He is the manager.

The Mayor and Council are the leaders.

Managers are on the front lines guiding staff in the direction necessary to achieve goals set by the leaders that hired him.

It's pretty simple.

Someone should tell the City Council.

Food for thought from the Oregon Secretary Of State, Jeanne  Atkins...When is a casino not a casino? In Oregon, it’s hard to tell.  A news release today spells out the issue.

Video gambling machines are a major source of income for a number of retailers even though the Oregon Constitution prohibits “casinos.” Trouble is, casinos are not defined in Oregon law, with the result that the prohibition is not currently subject to effective enforcement.

These are among the findings of an audit of the Oregon State Lottery conducted by the Oregon Secretary of State’s Audits Division.

“It’s clear that neither the Constitution nor the Legislature has provided clarification as to what constitutes a casino,” said Secretary of State Jeanne P. Atkins. “Still, the Lottery must examine its own policies and procedures to make sure that it is not licensing illegal casinos.”

Casinos operated by recognized Indian tribes on reservation lands are exempt from the Oregon prohibition on casinos.

Auditors examining a selection of establishments known as “Limited Menu Retailers” found that some are earning more than 50 percent of their income from gambling machines such as video poker, in violation of the income rule established by the Lottery Commission.

The income rule has been revised by the Commission from time to time, in an effort to follow a 1997 Oregon Supreme Court ruling that businesses should not feature gambling as a “dominant purpose” or “dominant use”. Like the word “casino,” these terms have not been defined by the courts or the Oregon Legislature.

At the same time, the Commission has altered its investigatory standards. Lottery inspectors are currently relying on a visual inspection to decide whether a retail establishment “looks” like a casino rather than comparing their sales income and lottery income.

About 230 of the 2,300 video machine operators fall into Lottery’s “Limited Menu Retailers” category, operating 11% of the video gambling machines in Oregon. These establishments generated about 21% of the Lottery’s total net receipts from all machines. Last year they received about $34 million in commissions and generated about $125 million in state revenues. Nine individuals or business entities own nearly half of these Limited Menu Retailers.

The audit also found that some retailers are giving away food and beverages to customers, but reporting them as sales, which results in a bottom line that looks less dependent on gambling revenues than it actually is.

Auditors looked at this category of small restaurants and how Lottery was enforcing the casino prohibition. Most of the businesses reviewed were earning more than 50% of their income from the machines.

Oregon Lottery rules limit the number of gaming machines a retailer may have. The retailer earns a commission for each machine. The average commission for a single machine was $26,111 last year.

Auditors recommend that the Lottery Commission seek a clear and enforceable definition of “casino” by working with the Lottery Commission, the Governor, and the Legislature. They also recommend that Lottery verify gross sales reports that retailers submit. For retailers earning more than 50% of their income from video gambling machines, Lottery should evaluate whether removing a machine would enable the retailer to comply with the Oregon Constitution’s restriction against operating as a “casino.”

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