SUTHERLIN — Anyone who came to the City Council meeting last week expecting conflict left disappointed.
The cordial 90-minute meeting, which several people applauded, contrasted with one two weeks earlier, at which the city manager brought his lawyer and unhappy residents resolved to recall the mayor and two councilors.
With Sutherlin facing several big issues, including how to provide residents with fire protection, recall organizers want to change leadership.
Volunteers are gathering signatures to oust Mayor Denny Cameron and Councilors Frank Egbert and Karen Meier. They have until Aug. 15 to turn in 472 names on each petition to force an election.
The recall did not come up at Tuesday’s meeting, but afterward petitioners gathered signatures outside Civic Auditorium. Without providing a count of signatures, chief petitioner Justin Peterman said the public response to the campaign had been “very positive.”
He said the city wouldn’t be facing so many hard decisions now if the council didn’t spend so much time bickering. He singled out Cameron, Meier and Egbert.
“They bully the city manager, and micromanage and won’t let him do his job,” Peterman said. “This has been going on for a while, but it’s just finally getting noticed.”
The petitions accuse Cameron, Egbert and Meier of inhibiting City Manager Jerry Gillham and managing him “beyond a reasonable understanding of their official capacities.”
Peterman said he doesn’t know any of the council members personally and isn’t motivated by a vendetta.
“This is strictly business. These three are bad for business.”
The recall formally began following the May 12 council meeting.
Cameron, Meier and Egbert had scheduled an executive session to discuss Gillham and possibly take disciplinary action. Among other claims, he was accused of violating a city code when he contracted with an interim finance director without the council’s approval.
Gillham insisted his evaluation stay open to the public. In front of city residents, he engaged in an occasionally tense exchange with Cameron, Egbert and Meier.
“The one thing I really want from you is to show me some due respect and talk to me like a team member, instead of talking down to me and treating me as though I’m a criminal,” he told them. “I want to have honest dialogue without being talked down to and put down.”
The meeting ended with Gillham agreeing to write a letter outlining areas where his performance can improve.
Gillham, 58, was hired in 2012 to replace Robb Corbett, who left to become city manager of Pendleton. Gillham has led a varied career that includes 17 years experience as a city manager and more than 35 years in the National Guard. He has served two tours in Iraq.
Denny Cameron said in an interview last week that it’s in his nature to ask questions.
“That’s just how I am,” he said.
“My complaint with Jerry is we need him to provide us with unbiased information, and he’s not providing us with unbiased information.”
Cameron said Gillham arrives at meetings with outcomes in mind and uses selective information to persuade councilors.
Egbert, Meier and Cameron have criticized Gillham for funding staff trips to conferences and hiring consultants from outside the area when the local unemployment rate is high.
Cameron said a recent effort Gillham led to brand and develop a vision for Sutherlin wasted money and time, and yielded a list of generic goals any city could have forwarded.
Cameron said he had never before seen many of the people who showed up angry at the May 12 meeting demanding a recall. He and other councilors suspect Gillham might have tried to save his job by recruiting supporters and misinforming them.
“I was expecting people to defend Jerry, but not to attack me,” Cameron said. “That was essentially an ambush.”
MAYOR’S CRITICS SPEAK
Sutherlin resident Joe Groussman has attended a half-dozen City Council meetings and has served on several local boards. He stood up at the May 12 meeting and agreed with the recall supporters who say bickering over minor details overtakes most council meetings.
“They’re managing pennies, not dollars,” he said in an interview.
Recall supporters reached out to former city staff members, who provided public statements critical of Cameron, Egbert and Meier.
Dan Huff worked for 17 years as the city’s community development director. In a letter to the recall organizers, he described how the three created a “difficult workplace at best.”
“Cameron made it a practice to berate Gillham during council meetings and used his employment as a threat on a continuous basis,” wrote Huff, now the city manager of Molalla.
A former interim city manager, Ron Garzini, who worked 35 years in public administration, said he came to Sutherlin in part due to his reputation as a fixer of “problem cities.” He called Denny Cameron a “pain” and “the single most destructive thing I saw in Sutherlin.”
“Some people just aren’t suited to be mayor,” Garzini said in an interview “I just don’t think it’s in Denny’s nature to lead. He wants to be in the audience, criticizing the council. If I was a Sutherlin voter, I’d send him back to the audience.
“I’ve never seen a mayor who wanted to be the city’s chief critic.”
The city of Roseburg’s finance director, Ron Harker, said Cameron’s behavior was one reason he sought a new job last year after 15 years as Sutherlin’s finance director.
Three years ago, Harker said the Sutherlin council didn’t pass a budget until the absolute last minute, though Harker said he and others warned council members they were days away from a government shutdown.
“They didn’t believe me at first,” he said.
Recall supporter Jack Trowbridge, owner of North Star Fabrication in Sutherlin, said Gillham had “endeared himself to the local business community,” through his enthusiastic efforts to bring outside money to Sutherlin.
He said the campaign isn’t a front for a hidden agenda.
“This is as grass roots as it gets,” Trowbridge said.
Cameron is near the end of his second two-year term as mayor. Egbert is serving his second four-year term as councilor and Meier is serving her first.
Karen Meier said she got into local government in part because of her background in accounting and also her interest in the tea party movement.
“I’m here to keep tabs on the money,” she said at the May 12 meeting.
She, too, said the council doesn’t get complete information from Gillham, just information that advances his agenda.
“The citizens out there that I talk to are angry, and they’re not angry with what you’re angry at,” she said to Gillham at the meeting. “They’re angry that their sewer fees are going up and their water fees have gone up.”
Recall supporters have been canvassing door-to-door. This week a pro-recall Facebook page had 55 “likes.”
The targeted council members plan to go door-to-door with doorknob hangers and have set up an anti-recall website, recall3facts.com.
“Were we voted onto the council to oversee the workings of the city and give direction to the city manager? Because we understand that is our duty,” states recall3facts.com.
Egbert, Cameron and Meier say they suspect union firefighters are behind the recall effort.
Sutherlin voters in May shot down a ballot measure asking whether the city should annex into Douglas County Fire District No. 2, which would have raised property taxes.
The vote jeopardizes whether Fire District 2 and its unionized firefighters will continue to provide services to Sutherlin.
Cameron, Egbert and Meier all say that the firefighters’ union is trying to replace them to win annexation through the City Council.
“They deny it,” said Egbert in an interview. “But you look at the audience in the council meetings and you see the same people there, and you see the same people writing on the Internet.”
“You look at it, and it seems obvious that’s what it is, even though they deny it.”
Egbert said he wonders why recall supporters are doing this now and not in November. Up for re-election in November’s general election are Mayor Cameron and Councilors Egbert, Tom Boggs and Patricia Klassen.
Douglas County Firefighters Local 2091 member Dwayne Gettys denied the union has a stance on the recall.
“It’s sad because we have nothing to do with it,” he said. “It’s easy to blame us instead of taking responsibility, but the people who are spearheading this are community members and people in the business community.”
If enough signatures are gathered, a recall election will be set, and Egbert, Meier and Cameron will have the opportunity to write 300-word statements defending themselves.
Sutherlin City Recorder Debbie Hamilton said the city hasn’t held a recall campaign that she could remember in her more than 20 years at City Hall.
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.