Baker City Council starts over this week after September collapse

By Antonio Sierra (OPB)
Oct. 17, 2023 1 p.m.

Wave of September resignations left the council with no members amid budget challenges

A blue sign on a lightpost states "Welcome Historic Baker City". The historic Geiser Grand Hotel and Baker Tower loom in the background.

A welcome sign in downtown Baker City, Ore., March 22, 2023.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

Baker City has had no elected government for nearly a month, and Baker County is responsible for putting it back together.

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The last three Baker City councilors resigned Sept. 27, triggering a state law that gives the county board of commissioners the power to revive the council by appointing enough replacements for the council to resume business.

With commissioners expected to make the appointments Wednesday, the new council will have plenty of work waiting for them at Baker City Hall, including hiring a permanent city manager to run day-to-day operations and staunching a persistent revenue shortfall that is threatening core city services.

A city without a city council

It’s been a tumultuous year for the Baker City Council.

The council chooses the mayor rather than voters and councilors undertook that process three times in less than a year. One of those mayors was Matt Diaz, who earned scrutiny in June after he posted an anti-LGBTQ+ meme on social media. Weeks later, he announced he was moving out of Baker City and resigned.

By September, the council was down to five councilors and no permanent city manager after the previous manager resigned. In an interview, interim city manager Jon France said the real dividing line was a contentious public safety fee the council approved with a bare majority.

The Baker City Herald reported that two more city councilors resigned that month, leaving the council with just three members, not enough to establish a quorum needed to conduct business.

One of the resigning councilors, Nathan Hodgdon, called for special elections to fill the vacancies. Instead, the trio of remaining councilors announced it intended to appoint replacements for the four empty seats.

Three residents, with the support of Hodgdon, sued the council to block the meeting and the appointments, arguing that quorum rules still applied. A circuit court judge ruled the quorum was required for new business and the remaining councilors resigned as soon as the verdict came down rather than schedule a special election.

Although the council has been without members for only a month, France said it’s been nearly two months since the council went dark due to the lost quorum.

France said the county-appointed council will have to act swiftly once it’s formed.

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Among the city’s immediate needs is a permanent city manager, France said. Appointed in June, France said his contract runs through Dec. 28. While he’s willing to accept a promotion to the permanent job, he said the council will need to either appoint him or someone else by the end of the year.

Holding the interim title comes with other challenges, France said. The city charter states that interim managers need to get all personnel moves approved by the city council, and without a council to give the green light, France has a growing list of unfilled jobs.

In the long term, the city council will need to help solve a persistent revenue shortfall that’s making it hard for the city to provide core services.

The public safety fee that added to the breakdown was an attempt to help stabilize the city’s budget.

But more work is required. France said the city’s budget deficiencies are starting to spread to other city operations, like public works and parks.

“There’s a lot of angst in the community about the city,” he said. “We not only have to resolve revenue questions, just concerning trying to keep status quo, but we’re falling behind on equipment replacement, road repair. We’re starting to suffer here.”

‘A good reset’

Baker City plays an important role in Baker County because more than half of the county’s residents live there.

Baker County Commissioner Shane Alderson is familiar with how both governments operate. Before he was elected commissioner in 2022, Alderson served two years on the city council. He said that if he hadn’t joined the board of commissioners, he’d still be serving on the council.

In Alderson’s view, the previous council was plagued by personal conflicts. While he wasn’t eager to play the role of appointer, he hoped the process would bring a fresh start.

“This will be a good reset for the council,” he said. “We can pick people that are willing to work together and want to be there and push the city forward. But it’s a very unfortunate situation.”

Seventeen people applied to be appointed to the council, a field the commissioners eventually narrowed down to eight finalists. The board of commissioners is only able to appoint four, the bare minimum needed for a quorum. The rest of the vacant seats will be filled by the new council.

Given the urgency of the city’s challenges, Alderson said he valued experience when looking at candidates. The finalist pool reflects that. Six of the eight finalists previously served on the Baker City Council, although none were members on the 2023 council.

Despite all the turbulence from the past few months, France said he’s still optimistic about Baker City. The historic downtown area is thriving, the city is attracting commercial development and the unemployment rate is low.

France said he has good staff working under him. He just needs a city council to complete the picture.

“(There’s) lots of good things here in Baker City,” he said. “The council needs to focus on helping the budget be stabilized so we can continue to do our part to help Baker City move forward.”

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