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Phoenix leaders to get lesson in team building

Phoenix city leaders will get some help in understanding their roles and communicating with each other.

City Council voted May 18 for a facilitated session to help city officials look at their jobs and help build better communication and teamwork.

The action came following a May 4 session where council members and Mayor Chris Luz verbally sparred over council roles in employee relations.

Prior to the May 18 meeting, Council President Stuart Warren said direction to look for a facilitator came out of a council executive session May 4 that followed the regular meeting. The process is intended to create teamwork, he said.

Councilor Terry Baker submitted his resignation May 5. He told The Mail Tribune that the latest controversy was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” but a number of different controversies prompted his action.

“This has been building up for a while. We have been hemorrhaging employees for the last year. We have never been allowed to ask what has been happening,” said Baker. “We felt like the answers we were getting from the city manager were insufficient.”

The city has lost eight employees over the last year, said Baker. Councilors have been told by the mayor and City Attorney Doug McGeary they must direct questions about personnel issues to the city manager and not speak with current or former employees about work issues.

Aaron Prunty, who was Phoenix city manager from July 2018 until April this year, is now the city manager in Eagle Point.

Other councilors also voiced concerns about employee loss during the May 4 meeting. Among those who resigned were City Recorder Kimberlyn Collins and Planning Director Evan MacKenzie, who left in October. Since 2013, Phoenix has had four city managers and has filled the position on an interim basis four times.

“I feel like there’s a lack of trust here with what is happening, and there’s a lack of people feeling like they are being given accurate information, even from staff like Doug, who we need to talk with. That’s what we hired him for is to keep us from legal liabilities,” said Councilor Sarah Westover at the first meeting.

Among reasons Westover ran four council four years ago was employee turnover, she said.

“I don’t think it’s the charge of the council to be doing exit interviews with department employees,” said Luz at the May 4 meeting. “It’s not the purview of the council to be looking at each employee matter.”

Councilor Angela Vermillion responded that she wanted to make sure the city isn’t falling into a deep hole and had concerns about recent resignations from City Hall, including that of the recorder.

With speakers talking over each other after 25 minutes of discussion, Warren said the conversation had gotten out of control and moved to table the matter. His motion was seconded and passed unanimously.

Baker said he is strongly considering a run for the mayor’s seat in November. He said citizens have asked him to seek the position both before and after his resignation. Luz has held the post, which is voted on every two years, since January 2017.

“Ultimately a private citizen had more right to stand up to City Hall than does a city councilor,” said Baker. “When I took the oath of office, I didn’t check my First Amendment rights as a citizen at the door.”

Council directed interim City Manager Eric Swanson to engage the League of Oregon Cities for an all-day facilitated session to be held in late July or August.

League of Oregon Cities general counsel Patricia Mulvihill proposed a session that would include the councilors, mayor, city manager and department leaders. All participants would be interviewed confidentially in advance or complete questionnaires.

In a proposal, Mulvihill listed purposes of the session as solidifying trust, identifying communication barriers, building new communication pathways and identifying roles and responsibilities of all participants.

Phoenix insurer Citycounty Insurance Services has participated in discussions about the session and will provide a $1,500 stipend toward the $5,000 that LOC charges for such sessions. The session would be open to the public but residents would not be able to participate.

An appointment will be made to the vacant council position, which ends Dec. 31. The seat will be filled for the 2021 to 2025 term by voters in the November election. Applications for the appointment will be accepted through July 13 and considered by the council July 20.

Seats with four-year terms held by councilors Warren and Westover will also be up for election in November.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Phoenix City Hall