Nehalem Mayor Bill Dillard adjourned a recent public meeting as questions and concerns surfaced regarding the city’s apparent violation of an ordinance, public notification procedures and an overdue comprehensive plan review.
By Ann Powers
At a Nehalem City Council and Planning Commission special educational meeting on annexation, Oct. 25, commission newcomer Lucy Brook asked why the planning commission wasn’t meeting on monthly basis – as required by the city’s own ordinance.
Under the Nehalem Code of Ordinances, Chapter 31, it states: “The Commission shall meet at least once a month. Meetings of the Commission shall be open to the public.”
“Since it says the commission ‘shall’ meet at least once a month, I’m wondering why we met a couple of months ago and a year-and-a-half before that – which I wasn’t on the planning commission yet,” Brook asked. “How do I have information to effectively make a decision?”
Members of the public in attendance added they would like to receive notices (by mail or email) of monthly planning commission and other public meetings so they could attend, ask questions, learn about community issues and be more engaged with their local government.
“That’s why it’s a public meeting,” said Micah White, Nehalem mayoral candidate and resident.
Others agreed, adding concerns about a lack of representation for Nehalem residents living outside city limits.
“It’s always us having to be proactive for you to be proactive,” said Shawn Brigl. “It’s like, secret.”
City Manager Dale Shafer said it was “senseless” to call a meeting “just to have a meeting.”
She explained the monthly meeting ordinance was written in 1996 when the city issued all building permits, so there was regular business on the agenda. That task has since been taken over by Tillamook County.
“The planning commission members time is valuable and they are volunteers,” she said in an email exchange White provided to the Headlight Herald. “If and when there is business, then the planning commission will hold a public meeting.”
Dale added that public notices were posted at three different locations and on the city’s website. She said would look into developing an email list to send notifications electronically.
Nevertheless, the city’s attorney, Lois Albright, acknowledged Nehalem is in violation, but there are no consequences for the noncompliance.
“Technically, the planning commission would be in violation of its ordinance for not holding public meetings monthly, as per the ordinance establishing it,” she said. “However, there are no ramifications for the commission to not hold public meetings when there is no business to be conducted.”
City officials confirmed the last time the comprehensive plan was reviewed was in 2007.
Nehalem Comprehensive Plan Procedure Policies, Section 2.020, states: “The Planning Commission and City Council shall review the Comprehensive Plan at least once every five years.”
Shafer said a review has been budgeted – nine years after the last evaluation.
Regardless of intent, numerous meeting attendees believed the city is still in violation of the ordinance and policy at hand. They asked if the city would hold monthly meetings until the ordinance is reworded, and will the public be allowed to participate in the comprehensive plan review.
Before those questions were fully addressed, Mayor Dillard brought the meeting to an end.
“If there’s no other questions about annexation we’re adjourned,” he said.
In an interview after the meeting, Nehalem City Planner John Morgan said the city was not out of compliance on the comprehensive plan review policy. He said Oregon cities with a population less than 10,000 were only required to do “periodic” reviews, according to Oregon State Land Use Law, Chapter 197.
However, Sadie Carney, of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, said that’s not true.
“A city’s policy may be more specific, but not less specific, than the relevant state law,” she explained.
That means Nehalem’s five-year policy would trump the state’s periodic review stipulation for cities with populations less than 10,000, according to Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association attorney Jack Orchard. The same goes for its monthly meeting ordinance.
“It seems to me the city has boxed itself in a bit,” he said. “If the word ‘shall’ is in there, then the question for the city is, why aren’t you doing it? It’s not a staff thing – the city council adopted it.”
White said city officials’ reaction to the matter was indicative of an unresponsive local government.
“It’s sad,” he said. “They are literally breaking the law. If a city doesn’t follow its own laws, than what incentive do the citizens have to follow its laws? (The city) is run by a city manager who doesn’t even live in Nehalem and a mayor who is not super engaged.”