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The sparkplug for change


LOT project proved to be impetus for political upheaval in West Linn

TIDINGS PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Though it has been more than three years since the LOT project was approved, that decision still casts a heavy shadow over city politics.

What follows is the second of a two-part series on the impacts of the LOT water plant project in West Linn. Click here for part one.

On the night of Feb. 11, 2013, the five members of the West Linn City Council took their seats at council chambers knowing exactly what they were up against.

The time had come to make a final ruling on the fate of the Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Partnership (LOT) project, a $250 million effort to expand and replace a water plant in West Linn’s Robinwood residential neighborhood. After a flurry of contentious meetings in January and early February, the council was close to approving the project — but every councilor knew that, in doing so, he or she would have to look in the eyes of disgusted residents and tell them why the chaos of large-scale construction would soon be invading their neighborhood.

The evening began like any other: after the Pledge of Allegiance the councilors took their customary seats at the dais. The newest face on the council, Thomas Frank, was on the far left; next to him were Council President Jody Carson, Mayor John Kovash, and Councilors Mike Jones and Jenni Tan. City Manager Chris Jordan and City planner Zach Pelz were at a table across from the council, and behind them was a crowd of citizens — as well as a civic-minded pack of Cub Scouts — waiting to hear the decision.

Thirty-five minutes later, they had their answer: In a 4-0 vote (Frank abstained due to his prior involvement with the project on the Planning Commission), the council overturned the Planning Commission’s denial of the project.

LOT would move forward.

“You’ve watched the most difficult decision this Council will probably ever make — and perhaps the most far-reaching,” Kovash said.

He had no idea just how prescient that statement would be.

Seeds of change

More than three years after that fateful February night, nearly all of the faces at that meeting have disappeared from City Hall.

Jones and Carson lost their re-election bids to newcomers Russ Axelrod and Brenda Perry in November 2014. Kovash abruptly retired in February 2015, with nearly two years remaining in his term. In a special mayoral election that May, Axelrod defeated Frank by a convincing 10-point margin (though Frank retained his council seat).

TIDINGS FILE PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - After speaking openly of their dissatisfaction with LOT and other projects, Brenda Perry and Russ Axelrod defeated incumbents Mike Jones and Jody Carson in the November 2014 City Council election.

Jordan resigned that summer, and was followed out the door by several other senior staffers including Pelz, Community Development Director Chris Kerr, Citizen Engagement Coordinator Lori Hall and Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt.

In November 2015, the vacant fifth council seat was filled by Bob Martin — who, like Axelrod, was bolstered in part by his record of voting “no” on LOT as a planning commissioner.

Each of those elections and resignations came with its own unique set of circumstances, but interviews with a number of councilors — past and present — as well as staff members, LOT officials and residents, reveal a general consensus that LOT marked the beginning of a sea change in West Linn. It’s one that continues today as major projects shift in focus and yet another election looms in November.

“LOT was like the final lighting of the fuse,” Perry said. “And everything snowballed from there.”

‘I was shocked’

LOT Project Director Joel Komarek has worked with the City of Lake Oswego for more than 20 years, but he still found himself stunned by the anger he saw when the project was going through West Linn’s land use process.

“I was shocked,” Komarek said. “I was shocked at how angry residents were, and that anger just kept building, through the land use process and then afterward. Because then the anger, instead of just being focused on us, was now focused on their council and anybody that they thought or knew of that was a supporter of the project. Or maybe not even a supporter, but just not a detractor.”

Komarek calls himself “conflict averse” by nature, and after some of the most heated meetings he returned home and wondered how people could treat each other so poorly.

“It was not a fun time,” he said.

Frank, who was elected to City Council in November 2012, watched the proceedings from an interesting angle: He had voted “no” on LOT as a planning commissioner in late 2012, and thus could not vote on the project as a city councilor. In his eye, much of the rancor came from a lack of clarity in the process.

“I was in the unique position on council to see what council was getting from folks, the emails and all that, even though I wasn’t participating in that vote,” Frank said. “I think the confusion came from how the council overturned the Planning Commission, and the fact that LOT had changed that application.”

Indeed, in its appeal to the City Council, LOT added a $5 million payment that would be issued to West Linn for the eventual replacement of an aging Bolton Reservoir — an extra incentive that proved vital in swaying the final vote.

“They put in that $5 million dollars that was not in the Planning Commission application,” Frank said. “Would that have changed the outcome of the Planning Commission? I don’t know. I can’t speak for everybody that was on it at that time.”

Jordan, for his part, had been city manager in West Linn for more than six years by the time LOT rolled around, and he knew that this particular project could prove to be the end of the line.

“I certainly had a strong sense that it would ultimately cost me my job,” Jordan said. “I absolutely believed that would be the case, and ultimately I think it was. That’s the way these things go.”

Yet he was also taken aback by how some residents reacted to the project.

“Some of them were very reasonable and very smart and willing to work and everything else,” Jordan said. “There were some that were absolutely not willing to negotiate or concede. Therefore any kind of negotiation or discussion ended up being a moving target, constantly.”

Looking back, Jordan also believes that some of the city’s more savvy political operatives seized LOT as an opportunity for overhaul.

“I think there has always been, as long as I’ve known, a small group in West Linn that, even though they won’t say it, they want a ‘strong mayor’ form of government,” Jordan said. “They want to politically influence every decision, from who gets hired on staff to who gets fired on staff, to who’s on council, to every decision the council makes. They want it completely politicized.

“That group used the LOT project as a vehicle to shift the policies of the City in their favor. That’s essentially what happened.”

In the November 2014 election following the LOT decision, the precincts with highest voter turnout included Robinwood and the neighboring Bolton area. Robinwood’s primary precinct, No. 134, saw Perry and Axelrod garner more than 70 percent of the votes.

“I knew Bolton and Robinwood have an older and very active voting base,” Jones said. “And that I would not have their votes.”

The 2015 mayoral election saw a similar trend, as Axelrod nearly doubled Frank’s votes in Robinwood’s precinct (686 to 371) and also won convincingly in Bolton’s precinct (805-648), while other precincts were neck and neck. Of the 6,099 ballots cast in that election, 41 percent came from either Robinwood or Bolton.

TIDINGS FILE PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Former Mayor John Kovash resigned in February 2015, leaving room for even more substantial change at city hall.

‘A deeper mistrust’

That West Linn’s political climate experienced a dramatic shift after LOT was undeniable. But not everyone is convinced that LOT was what caused the changes.

“I think the underlying problems that created political change were broader than LOT,” Martin said. “LOT became sort of a focal point of that because it was so extreme. It was a perfect example of the general dissatisfaction that existed before then.”

Indeed, when Perry and Axelrod first announced their joint campaign for City Council in August 2014, they did not cite LOT but rather “frustration with the way things have gone in planning, and frustration with how the council has conducted itself in holding supposed hearings and the like,” as Axelrod put it in an interview with the Tidings at the time.

Axelrod expressed similar feelings in a more recent interview.

“(LOT) did trigger my interest, certainly,” he said. “But it was progressive activities on the Planning Commission which really made it clear to me that I could no longer be effective on the Planning Commission. I had to get on the council to try and bring about change.”

“Oddly enough, (LOT) was one of the things, but it was not the final thing that pushed me over the edge,” Perry said in a recent interview. “The final thing was ‘Cut the Red Tape.’”

The “Cut the Red Tape Project,” which was eventually rebranded as a “Regulatory Code Streamlining” project after coming under public fire, was announced shortly after LOT was approved, and included dozens of code alterations that some — like Perry — viewed as a mechanism to inhibit citizen involvement through neighborhood associations and other boards.

“What galvanized the rest of West Linn was what happened in ‘Red Tape’,” Perry said.

Around the same time, in 2013, riverfront redevelopment planning began in the Arch Bridge-Bolton area. This, too, turned out to be a political flashpoint — particularly for some Bolton residents like Rebecca Adams.

“Because of LOT, I started paying very close attention to exactly which people were bringing us poor decisions, and was very concerned when I saw the very same people pushing a single overbuilt plan for the Arch/Bolton area,” Adams said in an email. “’Bolton is the new LOT’ kept going through my mind as I read everything that I could about the plan, and concluded that people who cared more about regional interests and their own careers were going to remake my neighborhood in their own image.”

Adams wrote her first letter to a newspaper shortly thereafter, and soon met other residents who shared her views.

“After that we met a lot of deeply concerned people who were collectively all coming to feel something had to be done,” Adams said. “When you work together for change, it’s not so scary, and you have a chance of success.”

To political newcomers like Perry, Axelrod and Martin, the ‘Red Tape’ and Arch Bridge projects were just another example of the City administrators — Jordan in particular — having too much power. Martin even went to far as to call it an “imperialistic attitude.”

“Personally, my decision to run was based not on LOT, but on my feelings about the way City staff had really taken over the City,” Martin said. “So it was more Jordan that motivated me to run, and his attitude towards citizens. And I made that clear during my campaign.”

But those feelings also came up during the LOT process.

“It was the spirit in which it was done,” Axelrod said. “It was the treatment of citizens by their own city that really, really upset people. ... Local government is here to serve the citizens, and they just completely lost that perspective, I feel.”

“Chris Jordan seemed to run this town like it was his own,” Robinwood resident Lamont King said. “He seemed to be a vassal from Lake Oswego, from my impression. And I went into this not knowing him from Adam. I had a completely open mind, as far as Chris.”

Jordan said that, through it all, he was simply doing what he was hired to do as a city manager.

“As a city manager, you have a role. You have an ethical responsibility to do certain things,” Jordan said. “One of those is to provide the City Council with the very best advice and recommendations you can provide them. In this case, the advice from staff was really a legal matter. You have a case in which you have someone with property rights who wants to develop under certain laws. As a staff, your job is to evaluate a proposal versus the laws that are in place, and make a recommendation as to whether or not the proposal meets regulations.

“As a city manager, if that costs you your job, that’s the way the system is supposed to work. Did it make me happy? Of course I’m not happy with that. But am I content and satisfied that we did our job to the best that we could? Absolutely.”

For Jordan, the challenge was in balancing the views of the community with the hard reality of state law.

“There is going to be conflict between what the community might want and what the law says,” he said. “As a city manager you can try to work with those two things, you can try to get them together. But if you can’t, the law prevails.”

The way forward

If the exact origin of this political upheaval is uncertain, what can’t be denied is the effect it has had city wide.

Last year proved to be a particularly tense year at City Hall, as the “old guard” clashed with new faces who were determined to keep promises made to their base. The council operated with just four members throughout most of the year, and a number of meetings were stalled by 2-2 impasses or personal confrontations.

A concept plan for redeveloping the riverfront Arch Bridge area — which was approved by the previous council in 2014 — was also shelved for most of the year, and the City is still in the beginning stages of developing alternative plans.

In November 2015, Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt filed a tort claims notice with the City, citing gender discrimination and charter violations committed by Mayor Russ Axelrod and City Councilor Brenda Perry. She later dropped the claim when she signed a separation agreement in March 2016.

Yet as the LOT project slowly approaches its completion date of early 2017, a new “post LOT” West Linn is beginning to take shape. The council formally approved a contract for its new city manager, Eileen Stein, on April 20. Several other key positions, including citizen engagement coordinator, have also been filled as City Hall works to become whole again.

Meanwhile, both Frank and Tan will see their terms end December 31, and neither has announced whether they will run for four more years. Should both bow out, the LOT sea change would be nearly complete.

So was it all worth it? Jordan, Kovash and Jones are adamant that they wouldn’t change anything about the LOT process (Carson declined comment for this story).

Jones, for his part, takes a “wait and see approach” when it comes to the future.

“All I can say is we’ll see what happens when we get a new city manager,” he said. “And when we move forward.”