NAPAVINE — In front of a throng of unhappy onlookers, the establishment avoided a knockout at Napavine City Hall Tuesday night.
Coming into the special meeting, the city was down to just two councilors after the sudden resignations of Armondo Galaviz and LaVerne Haslett last week. Those resignations left the Napavine City Council one councilor short of an official quorum, and without an approved budget for 2017, the city was just a few days away from a painful series of staff layoffs and department shutdowns.
That municipal knockout was narrowly avoided when Napavine Mayor John Sayers appointed Bob Wheeler and his familiar face to fill council position 4 at Tuesday’s special meeting.
With that vital council quorum attained, and Wheeler’s new council seat still cold to the touch, Sayers wasted little time in bringing the 2017 operating budget up for a vote. To the surprise of few, the budget passed with a unanimous 3-0 vote.
“I’m feeling better right now,” said Sayers at the conclusion of the contentious special meeting. “We avoided the shutdown.”
There was nary a cheer from the opposition crowd though, since the vast majority of them were hoping for an upset of sorts.
The vitriol surrounding the proceedings in Napavine has grown so fierce in recent weeks that both Sayers and Wheeler made public comments indicating that they have received threats. Sayers said the threats extended to his family as well, and as a result he was concerted in his efforts to control the direction of the meeting in order to avoid outbursts from the crowd. That approach led Sayers to eject one member of the audience from City Hall after he spoke without permission in order to voice his displeasure with the direction of the city.
Sayers said it was his first time ejecting someone from a public meeting. He had no regrets in the aftermath, noting, “If I could have recognized the other voices then they would have been gone too.”
After the meeting, a group of about 20 people, including Lewis County Commissioner-elect Bobby Jackson, hung around City Hall in order to discuss options going forward. One idea put forth was to hold a recall election for city officials. The mood of the crowd was so sour that Napavine Police Chief Chris Salyers hurriedly funneled city staff through a side door instead of letting them filter through what he perceived to be an unpredictable and potentially hostile crowd.
Once seated in the comfort of the mayor’s office, both Sayers and Wheeler modified their claims of threats, instead classifying the comments they’ve received as general harassment that lacked any specific intent to cause injury or harm.
Needless to say, rather than celebrating the arrival of some unheralded great hope, the crowd grew bitter when the mayor returned a member of the old guard to his corner for another go-round in the ring of city politics.
Wheeler has served on the Napavine City Council previously and even ran against Sayers for the position of mayor in 2015. After Wheeler was defeated in a four-way primary, he resigned in August 2015, citing a lack of leadership, an excess amount of time and money wasted and a failure by city leaders to advance opportunities as his reasons for quitting.
Even after his resignation, though, Wheeler has continued to work with the city of Napavine as a member of the planning commission. His new position on the council will run through Dec. 31, 2017, meaning he would have to run for re-election next year in order to remain on the council beyond that date.
Prior to Tuesday’s unanimous vote on the 2017 operating budget, council member Jenifer Slemp made a point of asking Wheeler if he was able to thoroughly review the proposed budget and if he felt prepared to issue an informed vote on the matter. Wheeler responded in the affirmative before casting his decisive vote.
Asked after the special meeting if he had actually been able to thoroughly parse the details of the operating budget since submitting his letter of interest for the council position last Thursday, Wheeler said, “Not as well as I will be.” Instead, he noted his background in financial and economic work and an intent to become more familiar with the inner workings of the budget going forward.
Wheeler said that he was approached by a member of the city staff and asked to submit a letter of interest last week following the special meeting where the 2017 operating budget failed to pass on a 2-2 vote. It was in the immediate aftermath of that meeting that Galaviz and Haslett, who voted against the budget, submitted their resignations. The budget passed on Tuesday was the same rendition that failed to pass last week with Slemp and council member Craig Sullivan again voting in favor of the budget.
Wheeler said he was hesitant to return to the Napavine City Council at first but he ultimately decided to come back as a means of helping the city out of a bind.
“I’m a person who likes to see things get done. I’m not a robot,” said Wheeler, who added that he expects this term to go more smoothly than the last time.
Asked what specifically gave him that newfound confidence in the city government, Wheeler pointed at Sayers and said, “My friend here has some experience now. He’s finally got some gumption.”
Sayers agreed with Wheeler that he expects better things from the council in its newest incarnation.
“I think the atmosphere is better than the hostile environment we’ve had the last three years,” said Sayers, who added that he anticipates better communication between council members.
Slemp shared a similar positive outlook.
“I hope with the new year that it will become a calmer ride, so to speak. Be a little bit smoother. It’s been a bad few months,” said Slemp. “Bob is very up front and he’s going to tell you how it is. He’s very opinionated and he doesn’t come in with a personal agenda and he tries to do what’s best for the city.”
Two of the most contentious issues of the 2017 operating budget have revolved around city staff positions. Haslett in particular was adamant that the city treasurer position should have a weekly allotment of a full 40 hours in order to keep up with the workload of the position. She accused Sayers and Slemp of working out a backroom deal to keep the position at 32 hours per week in exchange for Slemp’s vote of approval on the budget.
Slemp originally voted against the budget at a meeting on Dec. 13, but adamantly denies any wrongdoing. After his resignation, Galaviz wrote an email to The Chronicle defending Slemp of impropriety on that particular issue.
“It’s all about negotiations,” said Slemp in her own defense. “I don’t appreciate being slandered by Mrs. Haslett like that. To me she’s making innuendos and she shouldn’t have gone there. ... I think it’s a slap in the face to the residents and the employees of Napavine to turn their back on the 2017 budget negotiations and to put the future of Napavine in jeopardy like that.”
The other city staff position that has found its way into the crosshairs of public opinion is that of the community development director. That position is held by Steve Ashley, who is a full-time resident of Arizona. Many of the folks in the crowd during the last three city council meetings, as well as former council member Haslett, have voiced a pointed opposition to Ashley as the community development director. Most of those complaints have centered around the idea that a person in charge of community development ought to actually live in, or even near, that community.
Under the newly approved 2017 operating budget, Ashley is slated to be paid more than $40,000, with an hourly wage of $39.23 per hour. Multiple members of the Napavine City government have stated that Ashley regularly works more hours than he is paid for.
In an effort to appease the raucous disapproval coming from the assembled crowd Tuesday night, Sayers noted that 2017 would be Ashley’s final year on the city payroll. However, that promise was roundly scoffed at by many in attendance who claimed that the mayor has made similar promises in years past. Pressed on the issue after the special meeting, Sayers offered a personal guarantee that Ashley would not return as community development director in 2018.
During the meeting, the council also acted to officially accept the resignation of both Galaviz and Haslett. With those resignations and the addition of Wheeler, the council still has two open seats. Coincidentally, the city already has two additional letters of interest for those positions on file, although neither applicant was able to attend Tuesday’s meeting.
Sayers said he expects to have a few more letters in hand prior to the next city council meeting, and said that he is entirely hopeful that the council will be fully seated sometime early in 2017.
Since the city council did not meet the requirements for a quorum at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, Sayers was able to appoint Wheeler by executive decision. With a quorum now in place, the council members will be able to vote yes or no on future applicants.
“If you want to be part of the solution, then put your letter in,” said Sayers. “If you are going to come onto the council with your own agenda based on one issue, that’s not the way. You’ve got to be in it for, and committed to, the good of the council.”
When a question came forth from the crowd asking when citizens would be allowed an opportunity to speak on the record, Sayers replied emphatically, “There’s a meeting on January 17. Be there!”
That meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at Napavine City Hall.