Warrenton leaders admit they bungled city engineer firing
By SANDRA SWAIN
The Daily Astorian
At the end of the Nov. 28 Warrenton City Commission meeting, City Engineer/Public Works Director Alan Johansson lost his job and the city's engineering department was eliminated.
Prompted by public criticism, Commission members are having second thoughts about the way they handled the issue, which was not on the agenda that night.
"No time is a good time (to eliminate an employee's position), but our timing was less than ideal," Commissioner Mark Kujala said at the start of Tuesday's regular meeting. "It was a surprise, but yet I agreed to it. I could have asked to table it, but I chose not to," he said. "I now think that was a mistake."
The action came after a surprise motion by Commissioner Terry Ferguson at the end of the Nov. 28 meeting. The motion passed 4 to 0, with Frank Orrell abstaining because of a family connection to Johannson. Ferguson, Kujala, Dick Hellberg and Mayor Gil Gramson all voted yes.
Johansson, who had left the meeting early, received the bad news in a phone call that night from City Manager Ed Madere.
Kujala said Tuesday he would like the Commission to put a policy in place, "so actionable items of this magnitude" would be on the meeting agenda. He also thanked Johansson for his eight years of service and said the city is considering a severance package for him.
However, Kujala emphasized that eliminating the engineering department was a good decision now that the city's water and sewage plants have been completed. He pointed out that over the last two years, Warrenton has used a variety of consultants and engineers and said the trend has been away from having an in-house engineer. "I've been consistent in looking for ways to be more efficient," Kujala said.
The other commissioners all agreed that important items should be on the agenda before action is taken and favored developing a policy. Orrell said there should be guidelines for introducing last-minute items. Hellberg said although he agrees with Kujala about the need for a policy, the idea of eliminating the engineering department had been discussed earlier. "This was brought up at a budget meeting last spring. It's been on the burner for a long time. It's not something brand new to the Commission or previous Commissions," Hellberg said.
City Attorney Hal Snow said what happened at the Nov. 28 meeting "was not illegal," and the Commission is "free to adopt whatever policies you choose to conduct your business." He said state statute allows topics to be brought up after the agenda has been published.
In other business, the Commission discussed providing city sewer service to the Twin Spruce area of the city, and directed staff to get an engineering study before next year's budgeting process begins. Gramson called it the most "blighted area" in the city and long overdue for an upgrade. The Commission also approved a $5,000 change order for additional engineering services for design and construction of the Big South Fork water pipe bridge and thanked the Warrenton Business Association for putting up holiday decorations downtown.