Ontario changes would expand council’s ability to remove president, city manager

Councilor Ken Hart has been one of the key proponents of altering the city charter. (Enterprise file photo)

ONTARIO – Recommendations from Ontario’s Charter Review Committee mean the city’s governing document could be in for an overhaul.

The city charter guides everything about how Ontario city government functions, including urban planning, public safety and municipal elections. But it hasn’t been amended since 1985 – much longer, City Manager Adam Brown said, than was normal for most Oregon cities. 

The Ontario city charter committee consists of Councilors Sam Baker, John Kirby and Ken Hart, and citizens Michael Miller, Susann Mills, Jaime Taylor and Robert Wheatley. It also includes Brown, Assistant City Manager Peter Hall, City Recorder Tori Barnett and City Attorney Larry Sullivan. 

Since March, the group has been meeting to discuss ideas and compare Ontario’s charter with a model charter provided by the League of Oregon Cities. They have suggested a series of revisions based in part on that document, to be presented in a public hearing Thursday, May 27. The hearing will be 6 PM at City Hall. Citizens can participate in person or submit testimony. The council will then consider changes to the charter in their June 3 meeting and decide whether to send them to voters in November individually, collectively, or at all.

The proposed amendments would make it easier for the city council to replace the council president, councilors, and city manager and harder to impose a sales tax or other fees. They mandate further reviews of the city charter every ten years. 

And they also include a measure which adds a requirement that elected city officials have to live within city limits. The current charter only requires that a person be a resident of the city at the time of election but is silent about such a requirement after taking office.

The issue first arose when councilor Dan Capron moved out of the city and believed he had to resign. Then, City Councilor Freddy Rodriguez moved to an RV park outside of city limits this year, but didn’t resign, exposing the gap in city policy. He has insisted he maintains a second home in Ontario.

Hart was one of the key proponents of changing the City Charter. In a March interview with the Enterprise, he said that his primary goals were to ensure that future sales tax proposals would be voted on by the citizens of Ontario, and to institute a system of voting by districts that would allow for greater geographic diversity on the city council. 

The latter proposal, said Hart in a recent interview, had been discouraged by his fellow committee members in line with negative feedback they had received from the community. 

“The concern I heard and I think the consensus of the group was Ontario just isn’t quite big enough to have districts,” Hart said. “I hope I planted the seed for possible future councils or a group like that to consider when the city of Ontario is a little bit larger.”

The proposal to make the implementation of a sales tax a matter which citizens must vote on directly, however, had better luck in the committee and has made it to the final list of recommendations. 

In 2017, the sitting city council passed a 1% sales tax, but a citizen petition forced a referendum on the measure in the following May primary election in which the tax was soundly defeated.

Residents of Ontario may face less fees and fines in general under a new city charter, because the committee has also recommended that new fees and fines must be approved by a two-thirds majority on the council. 

Also among the committee’s final recommendations are two proposals related to the city manager – one which clarifies the language around when the appointment of a manager pro tem is necessary, and another which makes it possible for the city council to remove the city manager with a simple majority of four “yes” votes out of the seven-person council, rather than the two-thirds vote currently required. 

According to Brown and Hart, the recommendations come directly from the League of Oregon Cities model charter and aren’t related to Brown’s performance. 

Recently, Rodriguez, the council president, has become a controversial figure after becoming the subject of a restraining order, tangling publicly with former councilor Marty Justus at meetings, and calling him a “chomo” from the dais, an accusation which was unsubstantiated in police reports. The recommendations for amendments to the city charter include a provision to allow the removal of the council president by majority vote.

“There has been a number of calls from the community to make a change currently, and that was part of the debate at the committee level, that even if there was a desire to do that, the charter wasn’t clear,” explained Hart. “This way, if this charter is approved, future councils would have the authority to make a change in who the president is.”

When asked if that recommendation came as a direct response to Rodriguez’s actions, Hart said that “I would be naive to say that there isn’t any correlation, at least for some of the folks that asked for the changes.”

But the recommendations go even further, proposing that councilors could be censured or removed after a public hearing and two-thirds majority vote of council if they display “inattention to duties or disruptive behavior.” 

Hart said that this recommendation had been crafted by consulting the charters of three other cities and was primarily based on Ashland’s. 

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.


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