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Staff should implement policy, not create it

On May 13 the Lake Oswego City Council held a study session to discuss a report to Oregon DEQ updating the city’s compliance with Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) requirements for water temperature in the Tualatin and Willamette Rivers. The evening’s events were a bit of a stunner for me because they raised serious questions about the roles and responsibilities between city management and staff and the City Council regarding policy making and implementation.

Some background is important. Councilor Lauren Hughes has been working for several months with city staff to improve the city’s Sensitive Lands program. The Sensitive Lands overlays were created in the late 1990’s as one of the ways the city complies with state and federal environmental laws. Sensitive Lands designations have proved to be burdensome for property owners with an overlay, including property devaluation. In fact, many property owners have contended that they were never notified that their property had been restricted in the first place. The purpose of this Citizen’s View is not, however, to debate the pros and cons of Sensitive Lands program.

The original purpose for the May 13 council meeting was to talk about landslides and stormwater. However, the subject of the meeting was changed to a discussion of the TMDL report after Councilor Hughes uncovered the existence of the report. The council had not been informed that the TMDL report was being prepared by engineering staff although city planning staff working on the Sensitive Lands tech team with Councilor Hughes were aware of the report.

What is so disturbing is that the TMDL report told DEQ that the city would expand existing stream buffers to increase tree canopy and thereby lower water temperatures. Staff told council that the city was not in compliance with water temperature TMDLs. However, Councilor Hughes produced the actual data from the TMDL report indicating the City was completely in compliance with temperature requirements. Confused yet?

In Lake Oswego’s form of municipal government, it is the city council’s responsibility to make policy and it is city management’s job to implement those policies. Certainly, city staff makes policy recommendations to the council, but the staff does not get to set policy on their own without council approval. But, that is exactly what would have happened if the TMDL report had gone to DEQ. The council has consistently given clear direction to staff that they intend to reform the Sensitive Lands program. It is one of the council’s top goals for 2014. Council has told staff that they wish to stop or limit further Sensitive Lands mapping. One aspect of environmental regulations is the “no degradation” rule. If Lake Oswego sends a report to DEQ stating that the city will increase stream buffers, then that is what DEQ will require. The city will not then be able to reduce the buffers in the future. The city would need to expand the sensitive lands overlays to accommodate expanded stream buffers in direct contradiction to council policy.

It appears that some city staff doesn’t fully understand their role as policy implementers. While they may disagree with Council direction, they may not ignore or undermine it. Staff salaries are paid by Lake Oswego, not Metro nor the State. In the real world, we know what happens to employees who ignore or undermine management direction.

Jim Bolland is co-chair of the Lake Oswego Neighborhood Action Coalition

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