Questions Raised over Canby Planning Commission Appointments

The process by which the Canby City Council appoints volunteers to its many citizen committees and commissions is coming into question this week, after the majority of councilors declined the mayor’s recommendation for two out of three openings on the Planning Commission.

Per the city charter, new commission members are appointed by the council following interviews with the interested candidates and a recommendation by the mayor, council liaison to the commission and the commission chair.

The appointments are routinely dispensed with at council meetings in what is known as the “consent agenda,” a sort-of catch-all item that also includes other board selections, previous meeting minutes, liquor licenses and more.

But it soon became clear that this Wednesday’s round of appointments would be different. The stakes were high, with three vacancies on the powerful seven-member board, which reviews and decides a wide variety of development applications and other land use matters in the city of Canby.

Mayor Brian Hodson and Councilor Shawn Varwig, the Planning Commission’s liaison, had recommended former commission member and chair Dan Ewert, along with newcomers Matthew Ellison and Michael “Nick” Cousin, to replace longtime Chair John Savory, Vice Chair Larry Boatright and Jennifer Trundy.

But Carol Palmer, the former head of the Canby Heritage and Landmark Commission and an active civic volunteer, questioned why they had passed over the application of Judi Jarosh, the current HLC chair with years of experience working with historical properties and city staff.

“Based on my review of the candidate applications, I think the selection committee made the wrong decision,” Palmer said, pointing to Ellison’s and Cousin’s comparatively limited planning-related experience and skills.

“In addition to her extensive corporate experience in finance, systems and project management, Ms. Jarosh has served on two city boards,” Palmer said. “As a board member, she has managed multiple projects, served as chair and successfully pursued grant funding.”

Councilor Chris Bangs then motioned to remove the planning commission appointments from the consent agenda for separate discussion, which was approved over the objections of Council President Traci Hensley. Varwig also opposed the change, with councilors Greg Parker and David Bajorin in favor and Sarah Spoon abstaining.

Bangs had concerns over the dates of the applications. Jarosh’s had been filed September 29, Ewert’s on November 19 and a third, by local mortgage loan originator Chris Calkins, on November 27 — all well before the deadline of December 14 listed on the city’s website.

Ellison’s and Cousin’s, however, were both filed on December 16. Both named Varwig as the person who referred them to the position and listed the same employer, Local Plumbing Co., with Ellison serving as president and Cousin a service estimator and manager.

“It would be hard for someone to vote on a board against his boss’s vote,” Bangs opined at one point.

Hensley, Varwig and Hodson took umbrage with the suggestion.

“I think that’s presumptive, is it not?” asked Hodson.

“I guess that would be up to your own judgment,” Bangs replied.

Hensley accused Bangs of questioning Ellison’s integrity, calling the display “embarrassing.”

“I can’t imagine Matt ever holding a vote over Nick’s head,” Hensley said. “I don’t know Nick, but I know Matt. I think that’s just an embarrassing thing to say.”

As for the deadlines, Hodson said they are and always have been routinely overlooked for most boards as long as the applications come in before the interviews are scheduled, which was the case here.

After Bangs moved and Parker seconded the appointments of Ewert, Jarosh and Calkins, Varwig asked if appointing individuals other than those recommended by the mayor and council liaison would violate the city’s charter.

City Attorney Joe Lindsay assured that it would not, saying the charter requires only that the review and recommendation process take place before the appointment, but does not necessarily bind the council to said recommendation.

“You would have a powerless, sham appointment power if it was nullified by a forced recommendation,” Lindsay said. “Our charter also talks about all powers residing within the council. … If it was just a rubber stamp, it wouldn’t really be a power of appointment.”

Varwig also questioned Calkins’ qualifications, saying he has “zero board experience and zero planning experience,” and the fact that he is married to Councilor Spoon, which he said could create a conflict of interest.

“I know it’s not against the rules, but I think that’s important to have that out there for the citizens to know,” Varwig said. “But I see where this is going and, unfortunately, this is just a political game at the expense of the citizens of Canby. I’m frustrated.”

Spouses of sitting councilors have been appointed to and served on the Planning Commission before, however, and recently. Kris Rocha, the wife of Councilor Todd Rocha, joined the commission in early 2015, while Hensley seconded and voted to approve the reappointment of her own then-husband, Shawn Hensley, later that year.

“I don’t remember anyone at the time, Shawn, raising the issue of a conflict of interest,” Parker quipped.

“Had I been on the council when those other two were voted in, I would have said the exact same thing,” replied Varwig, who had previously served on the Planning Commission but was not elected to council until November 2018.

Hensley justified her actions Wednesday night, saying it was a different time and volunteers were harder to come by.

“Honestly, I don’t remember if there were any other applications because this was a decade ago,” she said. “At the time, I do recall that volunteerism was at an all-time low and if they could fog a mirror, we took them.”

Parker defended Calkins’ experience and qualifications.

“Mr. Calkins is a member of the Canby chamber and the Canby Kiwanis Club,” he said. “There is a record there of citizen engagement and involvement. Also, for nearly two decades, he was an efficiency expert for a national corporation working on making things faster, better, smarter.

“In fact, he was a trainer for ADP. And I think part of what the council has been asking the Planning Commission to do is to stop canceling meetings and get to work on making the code make more sense.”

Calkins had written in his application for the position, a copy of which was obtained by The Canby Current, more than once that he was interested in “updating and fixing our development code.”

But Hensley said that paled in comparison to the experience of Ellison and Cousin, who work in the plumbing industry.

“They deal with codes every day,” she said. “So, in my book, they have more working knowledge of planning and code interpretation than any of the other applicants.”

She argued that the council should not question the recommendations of their fellow board members and elected officials.

“None of us except for the mayor and Councilor Varwig were in those interviews,” she said. “So only they know the best candidates. I’m going to back up the candidates they’ve given us because they were there to talk to these folks; we were not. So I don’t think that making determinations based on assumptions and hearsay, possibly? I don’t know. I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

The appointments of Ewert, Jarosh and Calkins were approved by a 3-2-1 vote, with Varwig and Hensley opposed and Spoon abstaining.

At the end of the meeting, current Planning Commissioner Jason Padden addressed the council in public comment, calling the recommendation process by Hodson and Varwig a “hot mess” and questioning why some interviews had been conducted without the chair and planning director present.

His own application for the commission had been delayed three months, he claimed, and only appeared to be considered when another candidate, James Hieb, filed for the position. As it turned out, a second vacancy had opened in the meantime, and both men were placed on the board.

“I understand there’s a lot of stuff going on there with council,” Padden said. “[But] the Planning Commission is very important. We have a very important role in the city, and I do hope that the consternation of the council does not continue to spread and bleed into other boards and commissions.”

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