Tough time to run for City Council — and I hope plenty do it

By Jayson Jacoby July 30, 2010 01:57 pm

What an interesting year to run for a seat on the Baker City Council.

In the same sense, you’re perhaps thinking, that swimming across the anaconda- and piranha-infested Amazon would be interesting.

I’ll concede that serving as a councilor has of late been an experience that couldn’t reasonably be described as tranquil.

In the past 14 months the Council has:

• Fired one city manager (Steve Brocato — or, to avoid potential confusion with city managers named Steve whose last name starts with “B” — Steve-1); had its top choice for his successor (Tim Johnson) first accept then reject the Council’s offer; hired a third person (Steve Bogart, or Steve-2); who announced that he’ll resign Sept. 23.

• Endured a campaign to recall from office two of the four councilors who voted to fire Brocato (Dennis Dorrah and Beverly Calder).

Among the recall proponents were the three councilors who thought Brocato ought to stay (Milo Pope, Sam Bass and Andrew Bryan). Voters decided, by 2-to-1 margins, to keep Dorrah and Calder.

Bryan, by the way, resigned in late May.

• Learned that Brocato has filed a million-dollar civil lawsuit against the city and against all four councilors who voted to oust him — Clair Button and Aletha Bonebrake along with Dorrah and Calder.

• Argued on occasion about a variety of lesser matters, including, most recently, the completeness of meeting minutes.

On the whole of it, this seems to me a rather intimidating situation to willingly subject yourself to.

Especially for the princely sum of $150 a year, which is the salary cap for councilors set in the city charter.

Although as non-monetary compensation you do get to sit in a pretty nice chair a couple nights a month, and the city will supply you with one of those nifty plastic plates with your name etched on it.

Amid this rancorous political atmosphere comes the Nov. 2 election. And with that august event arrives the potential to alter, and dramatically so, the Council’s composition.

The seats of four councilors are in play: Dorrah, Button, Calder and Gail Duman, the latter having been appointed to replace Bryan.

I’m curious to see whether this circumstance will spawn a flood of candidates eager to turn a wrench, as it were, in the overhaul of City Hall.

Of course it’s also plausible that the recent turmoil will deter residents from running, with the result that the Nov. 2 ballot will more resemble the menu of a lemonade stand than an all-you-can-eat buffet.

In this instance I favor the figurative flood.

The new Council that convenes in January must deal with some vital, and difficult, tasks.

And I don’t mean editing meeting minutes.

Baker City, in common with other local governments and school districts in Oregon, will be saddled with a hefty new bill over the next couple of years.

Although to be precise, the bill is an old one — the new part is that it might be rising as fast as home prices did in Bend a decade ago.

The tab is for PERS — Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System.

Although the final numbers won’t be available until this fall, Baker City’s yearly PERS contribution could escalate by a significant sum — tens of thousands of dollars, and potentially more — starting July 1, 2011.

A recent report compiled by Phil Keisling, former Oregon Secretary of State, predicts  that PERS rates could double by 2015.

Although Jeanie Dexter, Baker City’s finance director, said she doubts the effect on the city will be so dire in that period, Keisling’s report is nonetheless frightening.

Baker City is paying about $730,000 per year for PERS now.

A substantial increase in that bill — and with no obvious source of new revenue to offset it — could force the city to enforce a level of fiscal austerity unknown for at least the past two decades.

The bottom line for councilors is that they’ll almost certainly need to make some tough choices before approving the budgets for the next few fiscal years.

And speaking with the selfishness of a citizen who puts money in the city’s coffers each year and in return relies on the police and firefighters to show up if I call, and the water and wastewater to flow in their proper directions, I want bright, conscientious people making those tough choices on my behalf.

And I figure that the more people who get their names on the Nov. 2 ballot, the better the odds are that we’ll end up with a solid slate of councilors come January.

I’m inclined to think that’s what will happen.

I just hope that the candidates who intend to come in and clean up City Hall, as the saying goes, understand that the biggest piles of rubbish might lie in a different room than they expected.

I suppose, though, that a fiscal crisis isn’t without benefits.

I’d suspect, for instance, that even a cantankerous Council can stop bickering about past city managers long enough to figure out how to avoid laying off cops and firefighters.

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The deadline to apply as a City Council candidate is Aug. 24. Before that date candidates need to collect valid signatures from 41 people registered to vote in city elections. Call Becky Fitzpatrick at 541-623-6541 for more information.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.