In what appears to be a worrying sign of the polarization of state and national politics trickling down to the local level, the new Canby City Council repeatedly deadlocked on its first decision Wednesday night: the appointment of council president, a more or less ceremonial role whose main function is to chair meetings or otherwise serve as mayor in his or her absence.
“It’s not a resume builder; it’s not a grooming for mayor,” Mayor Brian Hodson said. “It’s not about political ideology. It’s not a feather in one’s cap to say, ‘Look what I did.’ It doesn’t give you access to more information or different information. There is no council president office with a gold key at City Hall.”
For the two previous, long-serving council presidents, Walt Daniels and Tim Dale, the biannual vote to re-confirm their appointment was typically unanimous.
“Ideally, this would be a unanimous decision, in short order,” Hodson said. “I don’t know if that’s going to be the case tonight.”
It was not. Over the course of an hour, Hodson heard eight motions nominating a member of the council to serve as president — five of which went to a vote.
All ended in a 3-3 tie, with councilors Sarah Spoon, Greg Parker and newly elected Christopher Bangs on one side, and councilors Traci Hensley, Shawn Varwig and newcomer Jordan Tibbals on the other.
Hodson said three councilors had previously expressed interest to him in holding the position: Hensley, Varwig and Parker.
Parker was first nominated by Spoon, who cited his experience as the longest-serving council member currently on the board, as well as some of his achievements, his demonstrated ability to work with those of differing viewpoints and his accessibility to his colleagues and the public.
The three who opposed his appointment had differing reasons for doing so. Tibbals said he did not know Parker and that he (Parker) never reached out to him, Hensley said she wanted the position and believed she was more qualified, and Varwig made vague intimations about Parker having “an agenda.”
“The reason I got into City Council … wasn’t to make friends; it was to do the right thing for the city of Canby,” Varwig said. “I have an immense amount of respect for Councilor Parker. I also feel that there is an agenda — it’s my personal feeling.”
Tibbals nominated Hensley, but the motion died for lack of a second. Spoon then nominated Parker again, with the same result.
Under the city’s charter, the mayor is responsible for setting the agenda for the City Council and chairing their meetings, but he or she does not vote except in ties.
Hodson had made clear that he did not want to be the tie-breaking vote on a matter split along ideological lines — though he did not seem surprised that it was happening.
“I’m not going to lie: I’ve had heartburn since Nov. 3, knowing that the council, ideologically speaking, is split,” he said. “For this piece, I really hoped it was not something that was going to fall along those lines. It’s unfortunate.”
The next motion was by Varwig, nominating himself — which City Attorney Joe Lindsay said is permissible. Varwig said he believed he had demonstrated he was not operating along party lines, but just trying to do the right thing.
His motion died without a second. Spoon and Parker then put forth Bangs, who — though new to the board — has experience with government and parliamentary procedure by virtue of his many years as a social studies and government teacher at Canby High school.
“When I ran for office, I believed — and still do — that the city gets encumbered too much in political party bickering,” Bangs said. “I think we are better off focusing on parks and potholes. And I think one way we can get around that is dodging it in issues like this, where party politics shouldn’t really enter the discussion.”
Bangs’ nomination ended in a 3-3 split.
“I think we’re running out of city councilors,” Hodson quipped.
Hensley, acknowledging that — like it or not — party politics had entered the discussion, spoke about her background as a two-term chairwoman of the Clackamas County Republican Party, which ended with her retirement late last year.
Even in that role, she said, she demonstrated that she could work with folks across the aisle, including county Democrats, with whom she collaborated on a proposal for the Oregon secretary of state.
“I do listen to all sides of the story,” she told the mayor. “I just don’t believe we should be having a party conversation. This is who can do parliamentary procedure, who can lead the council and who can lead the council in your absence.”
Hensley made the sixth motion, which was to elevate Varwig to the role, seconded by Tibbals. The vote split, 3-3.
“I’m flabbergasted here, gang,” an increasingly frustrated Hodson said. “Again, it’s this ideological stance. How are we going to work together or accomplish anything as a team if you’re going to relinquish control to me every time? This is not how we should start off our year.”
And so it continued, with Bangs at one point stating, “This is descending into chaos.” Hodson compared where things seemed to be headed to this week’s extraordinary meeting of the West Linn City Council, in which outgoing councilors attempted — for over an hour — to derail the swearing-in of their successors.
The eighth motion, made by Varwig and seconded by Tibbals, was to nominate Hensley, and it was met by an audible sigh of frustration from the mayor. After seeming to admit that the deadlock would not be broken any other way, Hodson cast his tie-breaking vote for Hensley, installing her as his council president.
“Thank you, Mr. Mayor,” Hensley said. “I’m sorry this has gone on so long, but I will do my best to serve the city as well as this council.”
“You know, I hope that’s the case,” Hodson replied. “I really do. I’ve had conversations with some councilors who feel that has not always been the case.”
Hodson ended the discussion with a plea for his council to do better.
“We’ve got a lot of planning for the future, and it’s going to take all of us,” he said. “And this here tonight shows I’ve got a lot of work to do amongst the council. Councilor Hensley, I hope you do reach out and build bridges and build consensus, honestly, quickly and with integrity.”
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