Editorial: City code can’t trump free speech
On Wednesday, an action item that has deeply disturbing implications was added to the Feb. 26 meeting agenda of The Dalles City Council: “Open hearing to hear complaints or charges brought against a public officer.”
Councilor Darcy Long-Curtiss is in the hot seat Monday. A chain of internal emails, screen grabs of Facebook messages and quotes in a Chronicle story are being used by Councilor Taner Elliott as justification for possible disciplinary action.
If you are interested in being present, the hearing begins at 5:30 p.m. Monday at city hall, 313 Court Street.
It is the Chronicle’s belief that the troubling legacy of this council continues with retaliation against Long-Curtiss for speaking out against what she believed was wrongful behavior by some city officials and a member of the Columbia Gateway Urban Renewal Agency board.
Public statements made by Long-Curtiss are going to be weighed against the code of conduct policy signed by all councilors. The provision of the code that she has been accused of violating deals with how councilors are supposed to conduct themselves when speaking to the media or the general public.
“Personal opinions and comments may be expressed only if the councilor clarifies that these statements do not represent the position of the council,” states the code, which goes on to say, “It is unacceptable to make derogatory comments about other council members, their opinions and their actions.”
Here are the flaws we see with using that language against Long-Curtiss:
• On Jan. 8, when consideration of the mayor’s appointments to various committees was being reviewed for approval, Long-Curtiss openly questioned the fitness of one urban renewal board member to serve, based on his conduct.
She is one of the council’s liaisons on the board and told Lawrence about behavior exhibited by his appointee that she felt was confrontive and aggressive toward two business owners working with the agency on development-related issues.
“I feel like he’s made a lot of statements that are inflammatory and open the city up to liability,” Long-Curtiss said.
Her follow-up interview with the Chronicle simply expanded upon what had already been discussed in the Jan. 8 meeting, which was widely reported.
Long-Curtiss expressed concern that the board member’s financial problems (two bankruptcies) made him a bad fit for the agency’s budget committee. She felt his financial standing made his grilling of how two developers handled the financial end of their projects inappropriate.
Long-Curtiss also told the mayor there was a potential conflict of interest situation when that board member was involving in decisions that benefitted the Granada Theatre, where he sometimes worked.
The mayor and Councilor Linda Miller defended the appointment of the board member and it was approved.
• The possibility that some city officials appear to be actively working to shut down Michael Leash’s hotel plans and the Sunshine Mill due to a personal dislike of its owner, James Martin, is the only statement Long-Curtiss made to a reporter that was not tied to the Jan. 8 open session.
Her concern was based upon an assessment of meetings and news reports over time. Long-Curtiss, in the role of a whistleblower, felt decisions were being made unfairly and the situation needed to be dealt with, but there was nowhere left to turn through official channels.
• At no time was Long-Curtiss disrespectful of anyone in her statements, something else not allowed by the code. She expressed genuine concerns about the potential harm that would be done to the economy if Sunshine Mill shut down and 55 jobs were lost. And the more than 100 potential jobs that could be lost if Leash’s plans were not given fair consideration.
It should be noted that the agency board member in question contributed to the mayor’s campaign. He seems to share the opposition to Leash’s proposal in statements that have often been bombastic.
“How do we know we can trust you?” is an inappropriate question asked of Leash by this board member.
Miller and Lawrence’s hostility to Leash’s first set of plans involving the Granada block was evidenced by their many efforts to stop the deal instead of trying to figure out how to make it happen.
Lawrence listed “stop the Granada project as it currently exists,” on his “Things to do” list that he inadvertently sent to the Chronicle in December of 2014.
Continuing in that vein, Miller voted this week against urban renewal even entering into discussions with Leash for a second proposal, despite the fact he already has the property in hand and is not asking for more financial assistance from the city than is being granted to Tokola Development (which is getting a building for $10). Miller and Lawrence are all for that project, so giving away a building is okay, whereas they wanted Leash to pay full price for the three building on the Granada block that were tied to his first proposal.
The Chronicle has been routinely criticized by Lawrence for questioning his decision-making processes.
We are a watchdog for the people and it is our role to let them know what government is doing that could affect them.
Now it is Long-Curtiss sharing the same concerns from the inside of the process and that is alarming. It is her responsibility as an independent elected official to question what she believes is wrongdoing; decisions that potentially harm the people she represents and the community at large.
The city code of conduct should not be used to silence her for exercising her First Amendment rights. And First Amendment rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution trump a municipal code.
Whistleblowers take the risk of facing stiff reprisal and retaliation from those who don’t want their concerns to be publicly aired, as is happening to Long-Curtiss.
Accusing her of violating some type of privacy protocol is a bully’s way of shutting down dissent.
Last year, Elliott was found by the Oregon Ethics Commission to have violated two conflict of interest laws and two involving his use of an elected office. The council chose to remain silent on his wrongful behavior, which was considerably more serious than what Long-Curtiss is accused of.
Perhaps the silence was due to the fact that Elliott rarely disagrees with the mayor? How ironic that he would be the one complaining about Long-Curtiss’s behavior.
In April of 2012, while an unopposed candidate, Lawrence said: “I think we need more of an open, transparent and collaborate city government.”
Is this what that looks like?