Fairview City Councilor Wendy Lawton describes patterns of sidestepping important conversations, disrespecting women in elected positions.
Last month, a fork went up in Fairview. It’s the 37-foot calling card of our food cart pod opening in April. The Fairview Food Plaza will create a community gathering place for drinks, food and music, as well as host a Sunday farmer’s market. The plaza should be a draw to our new Halsey main street. And it will be fun. Who doesn’t love tacos?
As a city councilor, I wish I was more enthusiastic. The plaza was created without a public hearing, despite being paid for with $3.8 million in public funds. The decision to hire Justin Hwang, a friend of the mayor and some other council members, as plaza operator was placed on a council consent agenda last year for approval. This is highly unusual. Consent agendas are reserved for routine items that don’t require discussion â€“ not for major contract decisions. Only when I called out this irregularity was the item pulled off the consent agenda so we could ask questions and hear why Hwang was recommended for the job.
In addition, plaza construction is six months behind schedule and about $655,000 over budget. The fork alone cost $219,000. Most residents are not aware that the plaza is being built on leased land; in 10 years, it will belong to the owner of the private parcel it sits on.
In more than a year serving Fairview, I am inspired by the hard work of our staff, impressed at the commitment of our councilors, and amazed at the generosity of our residents. I am also deeply concerned about how we work as an elected team.
That’s why I submitted two letters last month and asked to discuss them publicly.
One letter focused on process. It suggested specific guidelines on how information is presented to the council, how and when votes are taken, and how the public is engaged in city decisions. The goal is to ensure we have the information, and time, needed to make sound decisions and that public hearings are uniformly scheduled, promoted and held.
The other letter focused on conduct. I outlined hostile treatment since I joined the council: interrupted, passed over, criticized, ignored.
I was asked last among councilors about committee assignments, and do not serve as liaison to any major city committee. I believe my treatment is due, in part, because I ask questions and voice an opposing opinion. I also believe it’s because I am a woman — the only one on the council. Two former councilors, Cathi Forsythe and Natalie Voruz, spoke with me and described similar treatment. Jenni Weber, a member of our public safety committee and PlayEast! recreation program board, has watched online meetings for months and has expressed serious concerns about council culture.
My letters were moved off an agenda and booked for a special session, which was canceled. Also canceled was a council diversity, equity and inclusion session. Council process and conduct will be taken up, I’m told, after the new city manager arrives this month and has a few months to settle in.
These issues cannot wait. We have major projects on the table, significant community concerns about public engagement, and a population that’s 34 percent people of color. Fairview can do better to fulfill our mission of being “the most effective, inclusive, accessible, proactive city government.”
Wendy Lawton is a member of the Fairview City Council.
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