The is the second of two stories highlighting Astoria city leaders’ discussion of goals.
When city of Astoria leaders sat down to discuss goals, City Council member Arline LaMear immediately voiced her frustration.
“I want to fire my elephant bullet right now,” LaMear told colleagues gathered at the Cannery Pier Hotel Friday.
“When we got the list of projects, I got to the Garden of Surging Waves … I literally got sick to my stomach when I looked at that. It says, ‘At this point, no specific schedule can be set as additional testing is needed to be performed before a plan of action is set.’
“We broke ground last April and every day I get questions – ‘When is something going to happen? When is that garden going to be built? Is that garden ever going to be built? Should we even build the garden? Let’s leave it a parking lot!’
City Manager Paul Benoit explained the bids for the garden’s installation, now that the infrastructure underneath the city block has been improved, were recently returned to the city. Designer Suenn Ho of Mulvanny G2 Architecture had given the city a $1 million estimate for what Phase 1 of what will be Heritage Square should cost.
Those bids came back higher than expected, Benoit said, and an additional $300,000 to $500,000 is needed to begin.
“If we had all the money, we’d be awarding the contract and it would be under construction,” Benoit said. He said the low bidder, Robinson Construction, is working with Ho and city staff to figure out what to do. “Suenn has this beautiful design and we didn’t alter her design, but it went out to bid and it came in, we think, high. Suenn thinks it’s a good bid. Either way, we either need to raise a lot more money, or we need to trim a whole heck of a lot out of the project.”
Each of the councilors suggested scaling back the garden, eliminating parts that were expensive and unnecessary or putting them off until the city had the funds. LaMear said she doesn’t feel the city should be trying to raise more money – especially with the financial hits the city is expected to take in the next fiscal year.
Herzig agreed and suggested working with Ho to identify phases, rather than a redesign.
Mayor Willis Van Dusen said there is a gray area with the city’s relationship with Ho, who is a friend but is still being paid for work.
“I agree with everything you’re saying,” Van Dusen said to LaMear. “I think we have all of the artwork here, we have the ground ready to go, we have the sidewalk completed, I think we should move forward with what we have.”
Benoit said that would make city staff happy, as they are frustrated, too. “It’s been an extraordinarily time-consuming project, and we would like nothing more than to see it built.”
He said they needed to work with Ho on the phasing so the goal of the garden is not compromised.
The city has $950,000 for the project on paper, with a $1.28 million bid, exclusive of a contingency fund.
Parks and Recreation Department
Organizing the city’s parks department after the turmoil last year involving maintenance difficulties, layoffs and then rehires, was also discussed.
Benoit said the city had narrowed down the 130 applicants to seven, including one from Clatsop County and others from as far away as Kansas. One candidate is from Washington.
“It’s a good strong group,” Benoit said. Of the things he is looking for in a candidate, he said, “finding a parks director who not only has the public service aspect of what you want in a parks person, but who knows how to manage a bottom line and make programs work.”
He said all seven candidates demonstrate that.
Because each candidate has to purchase their own airfare for the in-person interview, time for finding inexpensive flights was allowed, bringing those candidates in for interviews at the end of February. A new parks director, replacing JP Moss, will be hired in March, Benoit said.
Not all of the candidates are public employees, Benoit said in response to a question from Councilman Russ Warr. Two candidates have never worked for a public agency.
“That was my difficultly in this, because the recruitment was intentionally written to attract…” Benoit said.
“An entrepreneur?” Warr asked, to which Benoit agreed.
Benoit added that while many cities in a tough financial state are scaling back or eliminating programs, the city of Astoria is doing the opposite and is on the right track, as long as managers get a new leader in place.
As for the issues the City Council faced last year in regards to Moss and the maintenance program, Benoit said he heard the citizens loud and clear, and the city is moving forward.
“We had a big hiccup, I get it,” Benoit said. “But I think we’re structured in the right way. What we need is a new parks director that is going to live here, be here and really own this to a greater degree. I think the structure is in place; we just really need the right person to lead it.”
Although the conversation was pointed and emotional at times, the council left the meeting in agreement and smiling for the positive work they have ahead of them.
As the list accompanying this story notes, the goals include improving communication with all Astorians, completing the Garden of Surging Waves and renovating the city’s library.
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.