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Medford council suffers growing pains

It's been a rough year for the Medford City Council. For evidence of that, see the column in today's paper (Page B6), written by Councilor Chris Corcoran following a particularly bruising session with marijuana advocates on Nov. 19. That session, and some of the comments directed at the council, have caused Corcoran to question why he remains in an unpaid job that demands lots of hours and a thick skin.

No doubt many people would ask the same question of any elected official (particularly the unpaid ones): Why do you do it? Well, for starters, we say thank goodness they do do it. While we certainly don't agree with every decision the council makes and have offered up our own barbs at times, we recognize that virtually all council members we've known, in Medford and elsewhere, don't do the job for any sort of glory, but rather because they think they can help their communities.

However, the days of the patrician leader — the father-knows-best sort — are fading amid the complexities of running hundred-million-dollar organizations while under the scrutiny of people and groups with very different demands and very similar access to social media and other digital soapboxes.

For decades, the Medford council was a largely cohesive group, mostly business people (in truth, mostly businessmen) who often as not cast unanimous votes on whatever issue came before them on any given Thursday. That has changed, as evidenced by the ongoing marijuana saga, in which a divided council has prohibited medical marijuana dispensaries, then agreed to allow them, considered allowing recreational dispensaries, then decided against that, and gone back and forth on what to do about allowing outdoor grows.

The questions of recreational dispensaries and outdoor grows are now potentially headed to the ballot. Getting to this point involved the threat of a first-ever veto by Mayor Gary Wheeler, a raucous public session with marijuana advocates that led to an almost as rare gavel pounding by the mayor and a council that seems divided into evolving camps.

Joining the marijuana debate as notably fractious is the city's effort to build a new police station and three fire stations. Increased costs for the police building — which the council didn't learn about until after the building was started — were matched by similar increased costs for the fire stations to create a financial maelstrom. Costs for the police station were cut by $1 million and one of three fire station rebuilds was dropped earlier this month, with some councilors obviously angered after being left in the dark about the cost overruns.

Meanwhile the council is in the midst of a yearlong search for a new city manager following the abrupt firing of Eric Swanson from the post in June. That came amid acrimony between the city and the local chamber and resulted in the tense and awkward dismissal, in which Swanson was asked to leave the council chambers in mid-session. Much hand-wringing followed, both from those who demanded Swanson's departure and those, including the mayor, who were unhappy with the dismissal and how it occurred.

While, sadly, the council is currently all male, the days of the good ol' boys club seem past. The council has more youthful members, more philosophical diversity — one councilor plans to open a dispensary —  and has exhibited more willingness to challenge each other. That can make for some uncomfortable moments, but also makes for a council more representative of the whole community. We should all thank them for their service and encourage them to continue down this sometimes rocky path as independent thinkers rather than members of a lockstep fraternity.