JOSEPH — The Joseph City Council got down to its normal business, Thursday, June 3, following a second budget hearing and another executive session to deal with complaints of alleged harassment.
The council will hold what is expected to be its final budget hearing Thursday, June 10, at 5 p.m., with another meeting called for late this month to formally approve the 2021-22 budget.
Last week’s executive session was primarily to explain procedures for handling complaints between city employees. Another such session will be scheduled once formal complaints are submitted to City Hall.
But the highlights of the regular session were Pro-Tem Administrator/Recorder Brock Eckstein making recommendations — that the council largely approved — for getting back on track to business as it should be. He noted he was brought in to help the city between permanent city managers and recommended things he’s seen work in other cities.
“Part of this plan of action is, madam mayor, I recommend setting committees that would consist of two councilors and two citizens and whatever lead or director is in charge of that specific area,” Eckstein said addressing Mayor Belinda Buswell. “The main effort of this is to get the council more involved with what is going in the city because they haven’t gotten a lot of information.”
Eckstein said the committees would help councilors learn more about city operations and become more closely involved with them.
“For many years, there’s been a big disconnect between City Hall and City Council,” he said. “This has caused a lot of frustration on everyone’s behalf. These committees are not where councilors show up and dictate to directors. They show up and advise and be present for issues that departments are having and I’ll help offer solutions that might alleviate problems at that level.”
He said the committees would report to the council and urged councilors to trust their colleagues that the proper solutions are being arrived at. He also suggested rotating membership on the committees every six months to a year.
“It’s also my recommendation that councilors don’t get too comfortable in their positions,” he said, “so you can get used to every city function and learn how everything does operate.”
Buswell immediately called for volunteers for various committees. They will be:
• The Administrative Committee: Councilors Kirsten Rohla and Stephen Bartlow, will work with Eckstein. He said the committee members would sign every single check that is written from city coffers to keep close tabs on city spending and its bank accounts, as well as assisting with missing policies and procedures.
• The Public Works Committee: Buswell and Councilor Kathy Bingham will work with Public Works Director Levi Tickner.
• Parks & Recreation/Main Street Committee: Councilors Lisa Collier and Tammy Jones will work with Parks & Rec/Main Street Director Dennis Welch.
• The Public Safety Committee: Councilors Bingham and Matt Soots will work with Fire Chief Jeffrey Wecks and an ordinance enforcement officer when that position is filled.
Each committee is expecting to include two volunteer residents. Eckstein addressed the audience of more than 40 people, seeking the volunteers.
He said he recalled his mother saying, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problems. So if any of you are interested in any of these committees, I’d encourage you to contact City Hall and fill out a committee application and help come up with some solutions that’ll prevent some of these things from happening in the future.”
Eckstein also urged bolstering the city’s workforce.
“I’ve also identified a need for some more employees,” he said, recommending another utility worker for Public Works and a billing worker for City Hall. He recommended councilors and department heads make up the hiring committees for the new positions.
Books ‘out of whack’
Eckstein also recommended the council take bids on a new auditor for the city.
“There’s been some issues with past budgets. I spent five hours at the CPA office this morning — and some of these budgets go back 10 years. There’s been a lot of mistakes that have led to some financial difficulties,” he said. “I think you guys did a fantastic street project. Your streets look amazing for a city this size. You couldn’t afford it. That’s evident by the fact that we’re looking at moving money from the sewer and water fund to make a $106,000 loan payment.”
He said from looking at the city’s books, they’re full of discrepancies.
“I’m kind of trained to see that kind of stuff, but in my opinion, a professional auditor should’ve caught some of this stuff a long time ago,” he said. “We’re here today because this path wasn’t corrected a long time ago. You’ve had such a high turnover of employees and administrators, one, because I think they are frustrated with these books because they’re out of whack and, with the other issues at hand, some of them haven’t even had a proper chance to address them. They haven’t even had proper accounting software. I spent five hours a day developing a cash flow process with Excel spreadsheet. Whereas if we’d had Caselle installed, it’s a one-minute report.”
He emphasized that the problems with the books aren’t new.
“It’s not just recent; it goes a long way back,” he said. “It’s something that was out of line 10 years ago and it gets piled on, and it gets to where we are today.”
Eckstein said the possibility of changing auditors should be considered regularly.
“It’s a very good practice to, once every three years, review your attorney, your engineering firm, your auditors and consultants,” he said. “It’s not an insult against them, it’s just good practice to make sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck.”
In other matters, the council:
• Heard an update from Brad Baird, of Anderson Perry Engineers, on the city’s projects for paving, its water system and sewer plant.
• Approved a request by the Joseph Chamber of Commerce for a street closure for Aug. 28 for the 32nd annual Wallowa Mountain Cruise car show. It will include local food vendors, church groups, 4-H & FFA.
• Approved a request by the Joseph Chamber of Commerce for a free concert by a local band either Aug. 23 or 24 — not both days — to be held in conjunction with Bicycle Rides Northwest, which is expecting about 300 participants.
• Agreed to street closures for Chief Joseph Days, which will be July 27-Aug. 1. In particular, the closures will be July 30 for the Kiddie Parade and July 31 for the Main Parade.
• Heard a report from Rohla on the Tech Committee that progress is being made both on the city’s website and the sound equipment that will air and record city meetings.
• Heard a report from Collier that the Main Street Committee is planning a “walk-thru” downtown to determine needs there.