Letter: Two Questions

My name is Julianne Johnson. I have been a property owner in Manzanita since 1991 and I have lived here since 1992. In 1991 I bought what was called the laundromat building on Laneda in much need of deferred maintenance and over the years, I have very nearly rebuilt the entire building. In 1992, I bought an oceanfront duplex on Ocean Road—also suffering much from deferred maintenance and over these 30+ years, I have very nearly rebuilt it.
I mention that because I want you to know that I know something about buying substantial and expensive structures in need of substantial and expensive rebuilding. The prices I paid reflected the condition of the structures.
In Oregon in the 1970s, I added two residential properties to my portfolio—properties where I cut my teeth on structures needing deferred maintenance. One was a 1910 home in NE Portland and one was a 1930s bungalow in SE Portland.
In the mid 1970s, I was one of two Assistant City Managers in Tacoma. The two major departments reporting to me were Fire Safety and Public Works—I reinforced what I knew about sound and unsound structures working with the structural engineers and our fire management men.
When I returned to Portland, I was for a brief time a real estate developer. I bought a half block of land in the inner Buckman neighborhood and with a group of friends, we had designed a built a group of 10 rowhouses—The Oak Street Rowhouses—the first rowhouses in the City of Portland.
That’s my experience that brings me to tonight’s meeting. As I understand things, there are two major questions going on here—each with its own subset of issues.
One is the question about whether or not it is lawful practice to pay 50% of the salary base for someone spending less than 50% of their professional time working for the department from which the funds are derived. In my mind, this is rather a black and white question. If I were involved in city management as a council member or administrator, I would call on the League of Oregon Cities to square up this question—according to the common practices and legalities of the departments and budget accounts involved. Stop the argument; join the question; seek an answer which may or may not involve a more thorough evaluation by audit. And please do not take it personally when a citizen asks a question of substance. That is what democratic process is about. Responding fully to citizen questions is part and parcel of the responsibility of elected officials and city employees.
The other question is about the purchase, plans, and bond issue—a complicated subset of questions—of Underhill Plaza to be used as a city hall replacement. It is indeed easy to get lost on price paid vs appraised value; on early estimates for asbestos removal, for demolition, for new construction; on wise future use; on estimates of population growth; on estimated interest costs of the initial purchase and of the bond issue. Each one of these paths needs clarity, what today we call transparency, rather than the easy possibility of becoming a quagmire that weighs down both the question askers and those responsible for delivering the answers.
When I was a young woman staffer in the US Senate, answering—researching and resolving—constituent questions took nearly as much time as legislation. We put new employees on the task, like ombudsmen, running interference for constituents to get to the facts. Years later, after a graduate program in urban economics and city management through the National Urban Fellowship at Yale University, I was back at the same task when I first arrived at the job in Tacoma. Same task—get to the bottom of the facts, do the research, start over again, untangle a mass of information and misinformation, deliver three recommendations with consequences and costs spelled out for each one—all completed to the satisfaction of three parties: the citizen who brought the question, the elected council members (eight plus the mayor), and the city employees. It’s a lot of work but it is not rocket science.
From the articles and letters and posts I have been reading, I am confused. Has this step been thoroughly conducted? It has appeared that rather than reworking the information/misinformation, rather than calling in other experienced municipal advisors like the League of Oregon Cities, that a defensive stance was taken by City officials—elected, employed, and volunteer who serve on citizen committees—to prove that their actions
(1) with regard to paying City management 50% of their salaries from the water budget and
(2) with regard to the purchase and plans for the development of Underhill Plaza as the next city hall
were and are sound. With an overtone of having been insulted or harmed for having been questioned on these issues—that is—with an overtone of taking any questions as an assault on the person, not the issue.
I am proud to call this village home, to have built a business over 20 years which I sold in 2014 and which still operates today under new ownership. I am warmed by our caring community and all the accomplishments we have made. Mark Beach took an inventory of our community-mindedness when he identified that we had created 20 new charitable organizations, 20 new 501-c-3’s over 20 years. We saw needs from a food bank to an art center, from a state-of-the-art recycling center to scholarship programs and we created ways to serve our community.
You have identified a need for a new city hall and you are in the process of finding ways to serve that need. My hope is that you can tackle these questions without feeling put upon, with knowing that part of serving this community in your capacities is the task of working and re-working solutions so that there is nothing left to question. It may seem to be a daunting task right now—but it is your task. You have the smarts and the professional skills to untangle this quagmire, to insure that this community stays strong and solid without being rent apart just because some tough questions have been asked.

Julianne Johnson

One Comment

  1. This is a fantastic view on many levels. The city council and mayor need to welcome new, different ideas than theirs. Going on the defense when anyone disagrees with them is not sensible or reasonable governing.


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