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Rockaway Beach planning commissioner speaks out

A member of the planning commission in Rockaway Beach recently expressed concerns about how the city government is operating.

By Cody Mann
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Planning Commissioner Brian Halvorsen wrote a letter expressing his concerns that was posted on social media and read aloud during an April planning meeting. He said it pained him to write the letter, but with so many people coming to him, he felt he should use his platform as a city official to speak out.

“Let’s be civil and work together to make our city a more inclusive and democratic environment,” Halvorsen wrote on social media.

Halvorsen said he was troubled by recent developments regarding the ongoing legal battles with the owner of a beachfront home. The house at 211 S. Sixth Street made regional headlines after a state judge awarded more than $200,000 in legal fees for circuit court actions. A $1.8 million federal lawsuit was also filed and alleges property taking, inverse condemnation, negligence and discrimination.

Feeling compelled to reiterate public sentiments he’s encountered, Halvorsen said people are concerned that the “city government and some city staff have left citizens in the dark, treated them with disrespect on occasions when citizens have contacted city hall for information, and have fostered an overall hostile attitude towards the people of Rockaway Beach.”

Halvorsen cited a pair of letters to the editor from two Rockaway Beach citizens that were published by the Headlight Herald. Though the letters made separate points, they were similar in feeling that the City of Rockaway Beach was not responsive to their concerns.

“That worries me, so I’d like to take the time to lay out what I believe are the main issues facing our city,” Halvorsen said.

Deadlines topped Halverson’s list, stating that the City was failing to follow statutory requirements such as those referenced by Tai Dang, owner of the contentious Sixth Street property, in a circuit court writ of Mandamus. Dang prevailed in April after Judge Jonathan Hill awarded him more than $201,000 for attorney fees and more than $12,000 in court costs.

“We are not above the law, and if the excuse is that the city is understaffed, that must be immediately addressed by the City Council,” Halvorsen said.

Pivoting to public interactions, Halvorsen called for everyone to be treated with dignity and respect. He said the city staff should be trained on how to make citizens feel accommodated, even if the answers to inquiries aren’t immediately in reach.

Halvorsen also requested more transparency in how records requests are handled by the City, adding that charging fees for copying a small number of pages is ridiculous, even if it is the standard.

How the public is informed of upcoming meetings and hearings was also addressed. Halvorsen noted that other cities use social media to publish notices and agendas. Where do people check more often, the city website or Facebook, he asked.

“We need to go to where the people are, and we can’t just say that if people wanted to be better informed they’d work harder to find out,” Halvorsen said. “That sentiment, which has been shared with me by members of the city government, comes from a place of extreme privilege.”

Halvorsen recalled being raised in a household with hardworking, busy parents and said he understands the challenges local residents face in keeping informed about city business.

“We need to make sure that everyone in our city from service industry workers to retired folks and everyone in-between have an equal chance to make their voice heard,” he said. “I’d like to finish by thanking the vast majority of city staff, especially our planning staff, who work very hard and face many challenges that the public doesn’t see.”

Halvorsen clarified that his remarks were not intended to be a rebuke of anyone in particular. He said he believes “we all need to do better to make our city a more democratic and welcoming place.”

City Manager Terri Michel did not respond to requests for comment regarding Halvorsen’s remarks.