Former elected official asserts dismal political atmosphere prompted departure of Ontario city manager

Ontario City Manager Adam Brown recently announced he will take a top slot in the city of Keizer. At least one former city councilor believes Brown was subtly forced to leave his post. (The Enterprise/FILE)

ONTARIO – Norm Crume isn’t exactly a novice when it comes to Ontario politics.

Crume, who owns Norm’s Auto Repair, served on the city council for more than a decade, including time as the council president.

Crume has seen controversy, challenges and triumphs as a local elected official and he thinks City Manager Adam Brown is being railroaded out of town, the target of a campaign orchestrated by Councilor Ken Hart and Mayor Riley Hill.

“They’re just making it so uncomfortable for him he feels he has to look elsewhere,” said Crume.

Last week Keizer announced Brown would be its next city manager. Brown confirmed he accepted an “informal” offer to take the position and will most likely step into his new role in mid-April.

He’s served as the city manager in Ontario for nearly six years.

As city manager Brown has tremendous sway in policy and short- and long-term goals for Ontario. He acts as the council’s chief executive and manages city employees. 

Hart said recently he did  not want Brown to leave the city, and Hill said he was surprised the city manager was in the running for the top Keizer spot.

Hill said he and Brown have “had a couple of minor disputes at council meetings.”

“He’s never expressed to me that he is unhappy,” said Hill.

Brown said he doesn’t want to “pass up opportunities or if there is a place better for my family.”

“There might be better opportunities there,” he said.

Crume served 12 years on the council before he stepped down at the end of his term in 2020.

Crume said Brown is the “best city manager we’d had since I’d been there.”

“I worked with three of them and Adam was the best. He’s extremely trustworthy and gets things done and just a fine person in general,” said Crume.

During the past year, Brown has been at the helm of a city ship haunted by controversy, infighting among councilors and legal troubles.

In January 2021, Mayor Riley Hill sued the city to overturn a nuisance finding that resulted in a $500 penalty for his company, Eldorado Investments Inc. Hill won and had the penalty dropped in a matter that cost the city more than $8,000 in legal fees.

In May, former Councilor Marty Justus sent a cease-and-desist letter to then-Council President Freddy Rodriguez and Hill regarding an assertion that the two took claims of sexual abuse of minors against him to the Ontario police.

Justus put the city on notice he could sue for a violation of his civil rights that could cost the city $1 million.

The notice by Justus was only the most recent of a long political saga at city hall that involved Hill, Rodriguez and Justus.

Rodriguez, recalled from office in June, castigated Justus as a child molester and urged police to investigate him in the fall of 2020. When Rodriguez concluded Ontario police were not doing their duty, he sought intervention from the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, according to interviews and police records.

Hill also relayed to police hearsay about Justice and sought to be treated as an anonymous source.

Police later determined there was no evidence against Justus.

The city also endured departures of key personnel in 2021. Police Chief Steve Romero resigned and left in October.

Romero said he decided to depart for several reasons, including job opportunities but also cited the political climate.

Erick Hartley, Ontario Municipal Airport manager, Peter Hall, city human resources manager and IT tech Ken Monson all left their city jobs last year.

Brown said at the time that a “multitude of factors” prompted the resignations but also pointed to the recent political controversies as a possible reason.

Brown said that 2021 was “a hard year.”

Crume said the “political atmosphere turned 180 degrees 13 months ago.”

“That was when the new council was seated and the old council left. The atmosphere at city hall has been turned upside down,” said Crume.

Crume said the efforts to displace Brown are based on a “conspiracy theory mentality.”

“These guys’ MO is all public employees are crooked, don’t do right and get paid too much and they can do better,” said Crume.

Criticisms from Hill that Brown did not communicate well came to light during a yearly performance review from the mayor.

But former Mayor Ron Verini – who was elected to the city council in 2009 and to the mayor position in 2015 – said Brown performed well under his tenure.

“He was, and still is, the one city manager that interacted quite effectively, not only with citizens but with the council and mayor in feeding us information we needed as a council to move the city forwards,” said Verini.

Verini said from his perspective, Brown has had a “bumpy ride recently because of demands by some on the council to be more actively involved in hiring practices, a task typically left to the city manager.”

“I think the activities of the present mayor and some of the council questioning his hiring practices led to his seeking employment elsewhere,” said Verini.

Verini said the fact Brown is one of three finalists for the Keizer job sends a message.

“I think it brings a little tension to the council, the fact he is out there looking. But I also think if you take a look at the history of city manager, they usually stay for an average of about five years in any community,” said Verini.

Verini said that in some cases the council and Hill have questioned Brown’s authority.

“I think that in and of itself has created a tremendous amount of tension,” said Verini.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

Previous coverage:

Ontario city manager one of three finalists for top job in Keizer

Ontario council seeks power to hire department heads

Two Ontario city councilors voice surprise over recent news city manager is finalist for top job in Keizer

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