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Phoenix council ponders legality of recent meeting

PHOENIX — Former and current City Council members are at odds over whether a council meeting held last week to discuss the city manager position was legally advertised.

City Council members met Wednesday to discuss the hiring process for a new city manager. Interim City Manager Eli Naffah was recently granted a six-month contract extension, but council members decided the city would update the city manager job descriptions and review potential hiring processes for Naffah's replacement.

With Naffah available only three — sometimes four — days a week, council members disagreed over whether the city should keep the Crescent City resident at three-quarters time or seek a full-time replacement.

When the council met Wednesday, members veered off topic and discussed Naffah's job performance in addition to whether the city should recruit potential replacements.

Councilwoman Carolyn Bartell said she was told Naffah was difficult to work with but did not elaborate on the source of her information.

Council member Jeff Bellah urged the city last week to seek a city manager who could work five days per week, while Mayor Carlos DeBritto said the city, out of budget concerns, could eventually reduce hours at City Hall and would need a manager willing to work fewer days.

Former council members Steve Schulman and Mike Stitt voiced concerns that the council veered off the topic and that the agenda advertised only a study session in which no decisions would be made.

On the agenda published by the city on Aug. 7, a notice states, "At special meetings, only the items listed on the agenda may be discussed. Discussion on any other issue is not allowed and testimony will not be taken."

Stitt, who has criticized the number of closed meetings held by the city, and launched a Facebook page last year called "Phoenix City Council Watch," said the meeting was not properly advertised.

"What is the point of an agenda if citizens can't look at an agenda and see what will be talked about so they can decide to go?" Stitt said.

"I wouldn't have gone on Wednesday except for the fact I knew they wouldn't stick to the agenda."

Schulman, who said he plans to run for mayor, said the agenda should have noted discussion on Naffah's performance and that a vote could be taken.

"To Carlos' credit, he kept trying to swing them back onto the topic even though at least two of them kept wanting to hammer at Eli," Schulman said. "They want him gone, said he was hard to work with — or so they heard. Of course, they couldn't say who said that, that's how that always goes. The entire meeting was just a fiasco."

DeBritto said the meeting was held properly.

"If we were talking about a study session, of course we're not allowed to make decisions in a study session, but the agenda was published as a special meeting with a study session included," DeBritto said.

City Attorney Kurt Knudsen said the City Council could discuss issues outside the agenda at any open meeting.

Naffah, who was not present for the meeting Wednesday, said the topic was about the selection process for a new city manager, but he said he planned to listen to the recordings.

"I would think as long as it was just focused on the position it would be OK," said Naffah.

DeBritto conceded that the council has a habit of speaking off topic. "We do have some councilors who don't realize what the boundaries are, and we try to keep them on the straight and narrow, but sometimes they just keep going on it. It's my responsibility for stopping them, and I do the best I can."

Stitt said the city needed to "do a better job" of handling discussions at meetings and keeping citizens informed.

"The state of Oregon says, 'You do your work in front of the public.' That's what Oregon is all about," said Stitt, noting he would check with city officials about a complaint process before escalating his concerns to the state level.

"I've got eight years invested in this city, and they have to do better than this. There have already been calls to the ethics committee. Something has to change."

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.