It’s Our Town, If We Can Keep It

Port Orford, about 1990

As the story goes, after the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin was walking out of Independence Hall when a woman asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?”

Franklin’s response was both witty and ominous: “A republic, if you can
keep it.”

On the streets of Port Orford we’re pondering a similar dilemma: Is it our town? Can we keep it?

Those were the questions that resonated beneath the public comments at the December city council meeting. A meeting whose agenda did not include discussing the proposed tower on 8th Street and Hwy. 101, in spite of multiple requests by citizens. A meeting where the mayor’s words contradicted the city administrator’s. Where the city’s lawyer tried repeatedly to stuff the jack back into the box, and where yet again we learn that a major decision is in the hands of a single person.

If you hung on to the end of the meeting, you finally got to hear a small handful of residents plead (yes, that was the word used) with the council. Said Tim Palmer, “If you can’t right here and now take action to require a public process [on the tower] . . . at least please take action to require our city administrator and our planner to not approve this project until it comes back to council to consider this question of allowing your citizens some input on the biggest project ever to affect us in this town.”

The tower part of the developer’s proposal “has enormous consequences,” Palmer added. “It would change the appearance and character of our town indelibly forever, like nothing else has ever done.” The loss of privacy is a concern, with “tourists 160 feet up in the air watching everything down below. It would be a major drop in the quality of life.” Not to mention problems with wind, an earthquake or tsunami, and noise, plus “this is going to kill birds
like crazy.”

Early in the meeting, Mayor Pat Cox explained why the issue was not on the agenda. “It’s not an action item. . . . We can’t talk about it yet.” But, he said, “I’m 99 percent sure that it will be going to planning for review, passed on by the planning director.”

The city attorney, Shala Kudlac, quickly stepped in. “You don’t really want to have ex parte contact with community members. It’s supposed to land on your desk fresh. You really want to not engage in the subject until it’s properly before you.”

Does that mean the planning commission will open a public process about the proposal? City Administrator Jessica Ginsburg said, “Not necessarily, no.” Kudlac clarified that the planning director, “will make the decision whether to send it up. Based on the type of application it is.”

This was slightly encouraging. The initial word from the city had been that if the tower proposal literally “checked all the boxes” on the application for plan clearance, then it had to be approved with no further review.

Was the city attorney right to caution the council not to talk about the proposal? It isn’t currently on their docket for a decision, so ex parte rules shouldn’t apply. There’s currently no legal proceeding under way that would require notice to an opposing party – in this case, the developer. The advice seemed overly risk-averse.

The council did eventually agree to put the tower proposal on the agenda for January. And there was another promising sign: There was consensus to review the codes to give citizens more input on what is built in Port Orford. To “change the playbook.” That’s down the road a way, however. For now we wait. And enjoy the presently clear sky.

You can view the meeting on YouTube: