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Water issue at forefront of city hall clash
By Terri Harber
The work session was billed as a discussion about council-staff relations but Baker City councilors also spent a significant amount of time Thursday evening talking about Elk Creek.
Before hearing the concerns of some councilors that other councilors are alienating staff members, Councilor Dennis Dorrah presented a list of things he thinks must be done to ensure the Elk Creek diversion wouldn’t be a problem next year.
“I’m here to beg you guys to do something about this watershed,” he said. If something isn’t done now, “Elk Creek will be totally unusable next year.”
A water sample taken from Elk Creek on Aug. 4 contained 913 cryptosporidium oocysts. No other sample taken from any city municipal water source has contained more than three oocysts.
Hundreds of residents, and possibly a thousand or more, likely were infected with crypto in the city’s water in July. Residents were asked to boil water beginning July 31 until Aug. 20. The boil order ended after several water samples showed no evidence of crypto.
The city stopped using the creek when the test result for the site became known. It normally wouldn’t have been in use by this time of year anyway.
Dorrah has been spending time at Elk Creek. He watched cattle walking around the watershed while on the east side of the creek area.
Dorrah ran a couple of them off of the watershed, he said.
Most of his sightings were of pairs of cows and calves. He pointed out that calves carry around higher levels of crypto than full grown cattle — a fact previously stated by state and federal officials.
Cattle are common carriers of crypto. They spread it through their excrement.
Dorrah also said he “tightened up” a section of the triple-wire watershed fence while he was there.
He suggests that city staff “divert funds and material for the fence around city property in Elk Creek drainage to the watershed fence,” he wrote in a report given to the other councilors.
Dorrah advised that the city should contact a “reputable fence contractor and have him start tomorrow doing whatever dollar amount of fence work we can do without putting it out to bid.”
He also thinks the city should try to get the cattle moved out of the area.
The cows started arriving in the area earlier than expected this year. A rancher has use of adjacent land for cattle grazing by agreement with the Forest Service beginning Sunday.
There are “a number of different ideas that could be put into place to make the problem less of a problem,” said Councilor Clair Button. But “I’m not sure there’s a bullet-proof idea.”
He also pointed out that there’s no such thing as an “impermeable fence.”
What Button suggests is to have city staff watch the area diligently as well as to work closely with the rancher to keep cattle out of the watershed.
Buying the adjacent land where the cattle are permitted to graze from the U.S. Forest Service would allow the city to more fully control access, but it isn’t a likely occurrence, he said.
The councilors couldn’t take action Thursday but City Manager Mike Kee said the city already had been calling around for a contractor to do fence repairs.
Kee also suggested that the councilors could opt not to do one of the water projects currently budgeted during this fiscal year to pay for the fence work.
But the goal should be to repair holes where cows could enter before the first snowfall. More extensive work on the fence could be done next spring, Kee said.
Results were negative for crypto from the first test of the watershed since the water boil notice was rescinded, he also said.
Kee said after the meeting that the city’s relationship with the grazing permitees has been good. In the past they’ve been able to work through issues that have arisen.
The city will test raw water for signs of crypto twice a week until an additional form of treatment occurs.
At the beginning of the meeting, Mayor Richard Langrell warned against personal attacks on council members and then said “any cross words and I’ll stop this meeting immediately.”
When business finally moved to council-staff relations, Councilor Kim Mosier explained why she and some of the other councilors are concerned.
A number of emails detailing the staff’s inabilities to do their jobs include “a lot of hostile language ... insinuating someone’s going to lose their jobs,” she said.
“The last couple of weeks I’d dread opening them,” said Councilor Barbara Johnson. “I’ve lost a lot of sleep. They seem mean-spirited.
“The citizens want us to get along and work together” to solve problems, Johnson said.
When there is a problem with staff performance, do councilors “not have a duty to bring it to the city manager?” Langrell asked.
Mosier said yes, but, exhibiting hostility or giving “the idea someone’s going to lose their job” isn’t “appropriate.”
“It feels very disrespectful,” Mosier said. Showing respect is how you get people to do what you “need them to do.”
“We have a lot of things we need to get done. ... The incivility gets in the way of this.”
“Some of us are definitely more tactful than others,” Langrell said, after expressing his agreement with Mosier’s assessment about how to treat others.
“Personal attacks, making accusations about motives ... we need to be more careful about what we say and how we say it,” Button said.
The city charter, Section 22, specifies that the city manager has “general supervision and control” over city employees, said Brent Smith, city attorney.
And Section 15 states that “The (city) manager shall be free from coercion or undue influence by any member of the council” in administration and elections, he said.
Smith also told the councilors they can feel free to comment and “say what you need to say” but that specific concerns about an employee should be expressed in executive session.
Button also asked that councilors not undercut majority council decisions. He doesn’t want to see conditions return to the way they were in 2009 — when the council fired Steve Brocato, city manager at the time.
(Button was one of the councilors who voted to fire him along with Dorrah, Aletha Bonebrake and Beverly Calder).
The council broke into factions and there was a variety of “personal animosities,” he said.
The councilors scheduled an executive session about the personnel matter that brought about the decorum concerns. It will be at 6 p.m. on Sept. 10.
It’s not an event that’s open to the public, however. The regular meeting begins at 7 p.m.