City Attorney Joins Multiple Resignations as State Opens Formal Ethics Probe Into Council

Canby’s longtime city attorney and assistant city administrator has announced his resignation, joining several other high-ranking city officials and employees who have departed in recent weeks.

The news comes as the Oregon Government Ethics Commission recently voted to move forward with a formal investigation into the conduct of the mayor and city council and whether they may have violated state law in a lengthy executive session meeting in February.

City Attorney Joe Lindsay on March 9 sent the council a 10-page letter outlining his concerns about that session, and detailing allegations that city leaders may have violated public meetings laws, employment requirements and other ethical responsibilities of elected officials.

He went on protected medical leave immediately after sending that letter, returning on May 1. In the interim, City Administrator Scott Archer announced his departure for a new role with the City of Salem, and the council contracted with the law firm of Beery Elsner & Hammond LLP to provide legal counsel and services.

Melissa Bisset, former city recorder and current human resources and administrative director, left the City of Canby on June 9 after more than three years, accepting the position of City Recorder in Keizer. And both of the city’s IT positions, network administrator and network and PC technician, have also stepped down in the past month.

City Attorney Joe Lindsay and former City Administrator Scott Archer, seen at a May 3, 2023, City Council meeting.

Now, Lindsay has joined them, sharing the news in a June 13 letter to Mayor Brian Hodson and city councilors. His final day will be July 17. He was one of the city’s longest-tenured employees, particularly in the administration office, which oversees management and day-to-day operations for the city and council.

“I would normally want to share my reasons for leaving such a tenured position where I thought I would finish out my career, but I’m in part ethically barred from directly discussing the matters where the Council has other representation,” Lindsay wrote.

He went on to allude to the February 15 executive session that is the primary subject of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission investigation, in which officials discussed a document prepared by a city councilor, ostensibly detailing complaints by anonymous city employees, many of them about Lindsay and other management-level employees.

Lindsay had blasted the session itself and this document in particular in his March 9 letter to the council before going on leave, calling it “a giant pile of ill-gotten, entirely negative, unexamined/corrected statements” and claiming it amounted to legally actionable defamation.

“I’m truly concerned about further attempts of retaliation and harm to my reputation and that of my family in this small community where I’m a citizen and a business owner with my wife,” Lindsay wrote in his resignation letter.

“I do wish the best for my city, and I’ll continue to conduct myself with efficiency and professionalism until my final day. … I request thoughtfulness and kindness as I attempt to balance helping Canby with my own safety and health.”

Lindsay’s departure will leave only Interim City Administrator Eileen Stein, who was appointed six weeks ago, City Recorder Maya Benham and an administrative and HR assistant in the city’s administration office.

In an email to the Current this week, Hodson confirmed Lindsay’s resignation and spoke kindly of his work with the city.

“Mr. Lindsay has served our city and community as its attorney for 11 years,” he said. “In that time, he has served as our interim city administrator and as the assistant city manager. Mr. Lindsay has been a very good attorney for the city and the council.

“I know Joe will do great things in the future, and I will miss working with Joe. I know we will cross paths in the future, and I look forward to that.”

He also acknowledged the departures of Bisset and Network Administrator Paul Waterman.

“[They] have resigned from their positions to take positions at other cities,” he said. “I wish them all the best in their new positions. I thoroughly enjoyed working with both of them and appreciate their tremendous contributions to the city of Canby.”

The open positions of HR director, network administrator and IT technician are posted on the city’s website, while the search for a new city administrator is ongoing with the assistance of an executive hiring firm. The process for replacing Lindsay is not yet known.

State Moves Forward With Ethics Investigation

Meanwhile, the actions of city leaders will remain subject to scrutiny after the Oregon Government Ethics Commission voted unanimously on June 2 to proceed with an official probe into whether the council violated state law in the February 15 executive session, which spanned more than two hours.

At issue are whether the council’s discussion went beyond its noticed reason for entering executive session, which was to evaluate Archer in his duties as city administrator, and whether the council took action or made any final decisions within the closed session, which is not permitted.

Councilors Chris Bangs and Jason Padden, who started the preliminary investigation by self-reporting what they considered to be violations to the commission, both indicated that they believed the February session exceeded the boundaries of the law.

“Discussion at the executive session was only loosely centered on the city manager and instead strayed into discussing the performance of our city attorney, city library director, city human resources director, and at least two other city employees,” Bangs wrote in his complaint to the commission.

“It was because all these other people were brought up that I noted, at least twice, that it was not permissible to discuss anyone other than the city manager in this executive session. I also pointed out that our role as councilors cannot involve evaluation of any city employees other than the manager, attorney and judge, as per our city charter.”

“At the start of the meeting, the mayor informed the council that he had consulted with the League of Oregon Cities about how to call this particular executive session,” Padded added in his separate complaint.

“That led me to believe what was to transpire was protected under executive session. Now, as more information has come to light, and I have familiarized myself more with the laws regarding executive sessions, I realize what was discussed was not allowable under the law.”

As to whether the council took action during the closed session, one of the key pieces of evidence is a February 23 email from Hodson to the council titled “***CONFIDENTIAL*** Follow Up from Wed 2/15/23 Exec Session.”

Despite its subject line, the correspondence is public record and provided to the Current pursuant to a public records request. It refers to some of the matters discussed the previous week behind closed doors and details actions taken by Archer to address or investigate them.

In the June 2 hearing before the Oregon Government Ethics Commission and in writing, several council members defended their actions.

“It had been brought to my, and other councilors’, attention that there were some employee frustrations within the organization,” Council President Traci Hensley wrote in her preliminary response.

“Any discussion regarding employees other than Mr. Archer himself, was in the context of demonstrating the health of the organization he is administrator for and letting Mr. Archer know what issues we’d like him to address.”

She wrote that no employees were being evaluated at this meeting, and no threats of termination were given.

“No action was taken in [regard] to discipline,” she said. “We discussed possible solutions but no vote was made and no action was taken. The only decision that we came to was that we agreed to follow up on this issue at the next meeting (which got canceled).”

She also disputed the allegations and conclusions by Lindsay in his March 9 letter, calling it “fraught with assumptions and hearsay.

“Mr. Lindsay was not in the exec session meeting so anything he refers to in the email attachment cannot be relied upon as anything credible,” she wrote.

She echoed these sentiments before the commission on June 2.

“We certainly don’t want to violate any rules, and we didn’t think we were,” she said. “We were following the mayor’s guidance he sought the League of Oregon Cities legal counsel. And we were not evaluating evaluating multiple employees; that’s why notice wasn’t given to multiple employees.

“Any discussion about other employees was in the context of providing the health of the organization to Mr. Archer in his administration, and kind of trying to flush out some issues that we would like him to address.”

The hearing was attended by all council members with the exception of Bangs and Hodson.

“If it is found that I did violate executive session law, please know it was not my attention to do so and I will take any ruling this body makes very seriously,” Padden said.

“I see this as an opportunity to ensure I am upholding the integrity of the office I was appointed to. I have and will continue to do my level best to better the community I live in, and do so within the balance of the law.”

“I appreciate your time in looking into this case,” Councilor Jim Davis agreed. “Whatever the course, whatever the commission decides to do, investigate or dismiss, I’ll support either one, and I will cooperate to my fullest during the process of the investigation.”

Councilor Shawn Varwig echoed Hensley’s recollection of the February 15 session and the reason that it was conducted in the way that it was.

“From my understanding, it was a meeting to discuss Mr. Archer’s role in managing employees, and so any of the comments that were made about employees were in [regard to] Mr. Archer’s role in managing those employees, not about those employees per se,” he said.

“I also don’t do not recall any final decision being made in that meeting. But as the others have said, I welcome any decision that you guys make, and I will abide by them and fully cooperate with them.”

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