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Council retains law firm for dirty water

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

Among many items of action during the City Council meeting Dec. 13 were the purchase of property, retention of a lawyer in relation to the Green Peter drawdown, and suspending the process to hire a city manager.

Lebanon may sue the Corps

Following an executive session, which is closed to the public, the council agreed to move forward with plans to retain Markowitz Herbold PC, a Portland-based litigation firm, to pursue litigation as it relates to water quality issues relating to the South Santiam River.

After the US Army Corps of Engineers began its first-ever deep drawdown at Green Peter Reservoir, 56 years worth of accumulated sediment started flushing down the Santiam River, turning the river a coffee-and-cream color from suspended silt so fine that it cannot settle to the bottom. The City of Sweet Home and City of Lebanon both reported the extra costs it’s taking to clean the water for its residents, which has become an unexpected financial burden.

Earlier in the city council meeting, Whitlatch reported turbidity levels are still high, and sediment in their sedimentation basins reached an all-time high.

“Typically we would get six inches or so of sediment over the course of a year,” he said. “We had roughly three feet in the last 40 to 50 days. That’s what we’re filtering out of the raw water that’s coming out of the South Santiam.”

The City of Sweet Home has also announced it will retain Markowitz Herbold PC to pursue litigation against the USACE, and the Linn County Board of Commissioners also made a commitment to pursue litigation.

The City bought a house

City council approved the purchase of a house located at 1185 Airport Road for $327,400 with the foresight that the land may be needed for future installation of a traffic signal. The remodeled house is located on the corner of 12th Street and Airport Road, but would likely be demolished by the City. A 2018 Transportation System Plan identifies the intersection as a possible future location for a signal or roundabout.

“We don’t know when that will happen,” Interim City Manager Ron Whitlatch said. “My guess is sooner rather than later based on development inquiries we keep getting and traffic volumes that are happening.”

If the property were to be owned and occupied by a private individual at the time a traffic control device needed to be installed, the City would find itself needing to negotiate with the owner to acquire part of the property, Whitlatch explained.

Linn County just went through a similar process whereby it tried to purchase a portion of privately-owned property at the corner of Airport and Stoltz Hill roads for a traffic control installation, but the owner refused to sell. The County then pursued acquisition through eminent domain.

That is “a really tough pill to swallow,” Whitlatch said regarding the possibility of having to put someone through that. This was an opportunity to avoid those problems, he said. Whitlatch thinks it might cost about $30,000 to demolish the structure, paid for by the transportation fund. The property was purchased through transportation system development funds.

Council puts hold on hiring its next city manager

After sorting through more than 30 applications for the position of city manager, the city council selected two candidates to introduce to the community and conduct further interviews with. They were Brandon Neish (the city’s current finance director) and John Morgan (a former Lebanon resident who is currently pro tem city manager for the City of Gervais).

After all was said and done, however, five of the councilors voted at this meeting to put the search-and-select process on hold until July 2024. Councilor Wayne Dykstra opposed the motion.

In a press release sent Dec. 14, the City stated, “Both candidates have many good qualities and qualifications, and both were very patient as the City navigated through the recruitment process during the holiday season.

“City Council reviewed comments from the community panel, staff and citizens who attended the meet and greet. After the council’s individual interviews and the review of the comments, the council has decided that neither candidate was the right fit for the Lebanon city manager position.”

Whitlatch will continue acting as the interim city manager while the Council determines its next steps.

“While it is a bit of a setback to have not found the exact person this time, it is more important that we make the right decision rather than a hasty decision.”

In other business, the council:

♦ Approved a motion 4-2 to place a referendum on the November 2024 ballot asking voters whether the City should remove fluoride from its water supply. Councilors Wayne Dykstra, Carl Mann, Jeremy Salvage and Dave Workman approved the motion; councilors Michelle Steinhebel and KJ Ullfers opposed.

Steinhebel said there is an active petition to collect 1,952 signatures by May 17, 2024 for the subject to be placed on the ballot, stressing that it is a procedure the government has in place to allow residents to make the decision the council is now making.

♦ Approved a motion allowing Mayor Ken Jackola to sign a letter of support for ENTEK. Whitlatch said it appears the Environmental Protection Agency is working on rules that could “severely impact” ENTEK’s ability to operate. The conflict revolves around the company’s use and discharge of trichloroethylene during the manufacture of battery separators. The letter indicates ENTEK’s discharge does not offend the Clean Water Act, and the company employs 450 area residents and provides essential funding for the city.

♦ Heard a presentation from Sean Tate, a lobbyist representing newly-formed Advocating for Small Municipalities Advocacy Coalition (SMAC), a membership-based coalition of rural municipalities throughout the state that will work together to effect change in the state’s decisions.

Tate said a majority of Oregon’s cities have a population of under 10,000 and they are not being invited to the table, so to speak, to participate in talks centered around problems every community faces, such as infrastructure, housing, developable land, revenue, addiction and homelessness.

The presentation is essentially an invitation for the City of Lebanon to become a member of SMAC. Current members of SMAC include Brownsville, Halsey, Harrisburg, Monroe, Scio and Sodaville.

“I wrote my entire business plan based on the idea that rural Oregon doesn’t get the representation that it needs,” Tate said. “This works if we all participate.”

♦ Accepted a $158,943 grant from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department’s Recreational Trails Program to be used for the West River Trail Extension project, which will be at the west side of River Park. The City is required to match the grant. Staff intend to pull $116,243 from Parks SDC funds and $22,300 from donated funds from Build Lebanon Trails.

♦ Heard from city staff Kelly Hart, who provided answers to questions posed at a former council meeting about psilocybin. She found that current operating psilocybin facilities are charging between $1,000 and $3,000 per session, which includes a 15% tax that goes to the State of Oregon.

Voters will decide next year if Lebanon will allow psilocybin facilities in its jurisdiction. Hart was tasked with drawing up ordinances, should the voters answer “yes” to the question.

♦ Approved a motion to commit remaining ARPA funds (American Rescue Plan Act) for cybersecurity improvements and sewer infrastructure. The City of Lebanon had received $3,475,676 from ARPA and spent about $3 million of it for the westside interceptor project. The remaining funds needed to be committed to projects by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.

♦ Heard from Jackola about an opportunity to rent a billboard just north of town. The idea would be to use it to promote tourism and/or the community at a cost of approximately $700 a month from tourism funds. Community advocate Gamael Nassar approached the council to say the billboard is exactly what a newly-formed tourism group in Lebanon would support.

♦ Heard from Councilor Steinhebel about how the City of Portland is looking into ways to ban public drug use. Part of the effort, she explained, may include urging the legislature to modify Measure 110 to give municipalities more options. Portland has already passed ordinances that will go into effect if the legislature makes the proposed changes, she said.

“I would really like to explore that here,” Steinhebel said. “If it’s something that Portland’s doing, it kind of signals to me that maybe this is also something some of us smaller cities can do to kind of combat it.”

♦ Approved code amendments concerning RV parks and recreational vehicles as caretaker dwellings (read more about it at LebanonLocalNews.com/new-gas-station-car-wash-but-no-to-private-rv-parks/).

♦ Heard from dentist Adam Kirkpatrick, who shared support for fluoridation of water, and from Corbin Tolen, who urged the council to let the residents vote on the matter.

♦ Heard from medical college students, who urged the community to show more kindness toward the city’s population of people who are homeless.

♦ Heard from Nancy Randall and Rick Franklin, who shared that Santiam Excursion train rides for the holidays are sold out and bringing in tourists from out of the city. Franklin said he’d like to see the City take some actions to help provide parking or free up more space for the thousands of people who come to Lebanon.