‘Chaos’ in the community

The politicization of Florence’s city council election: Part I

Oct. 24, 2018 — “I have a brief statement as mayor,” City of Florence Mayor Joe Henry said on Tuesday, Oct. 16, in an interview with the Siuslaw News. “The city currently has no official position on this matter. Up until this point, despite some very different views and backgrounds, we’ve managed to work as a team to make Florence a ‘City in Motion,’ and we’ve accomplished that mainly through the efforts of our city staff and teamwork. … I’m afraid that these recent incidents will have a dramatic impact on our ability to continue to function as a team.”

The mayor was speaking about the recent incident involving two sitting city councilors, Joshua Greene and Susy Lacer, who spoke to current council candidate Geraldine Lucio about her readiness to run. Their actions have turned into a heated exchange between the mayor and the councilors over what is considered appropriate conduct, with Henry calling Greene and Lacer’s actions “inappropriate” and “morally unethical” during personal comments about the matter.

“As I have said many times before, one of the reasons for our success is that I have managed to direct the affairs of the city in a non-partisan way to keep political agendas, including my own, out of the mix. I’m afraid the recent actions by members of the city council will have a lasting effect on that relationship. From an official standpoint, that’s all I can say,” Henry concluded.

Henry was speaking on events surrounding the City of Florence election campaign, which finds three candidates running for two seats in the Nov. 6 General Election. Woody Woodbury is defending his seat, while Lucio and Miltenberger are vying for a position left vacant by Lacer, who is retiring from her position after one term.

Despite Henry’s official stand on rallying against partisanship in the election, the Siuslaw News has discovered a host of ethical questions that have come to light regarding the local election. Among them: The use of out-of-town campaign managers, alleged coordination between candidates to swing the election and rising tensions within the current city council.

As a result, what has been historically been a non-partisan race for city council has become anything but.

“People have long memories,” Henry said of the two councilors’ actions. “I think it would be a shame if someone dropped out of the campaign because of this.”

 “Just be honest”

“I was essentially told that Geraldine was uncomfortable speaking in public,” Greene said.

The idea that Lucio has an aversion to speaking in a public debate was sparked when a series of scheduled forums that were to host all three candidates — Woodbury, Miltenberger and Lucio — were cancelled or modified for various reasons. As a result, the only real discussion with all three candidates together occurred during Coast Radio’s recording of the Tuesday, Oct. 9, broadcast of its “Our Town” series, when host George Henry interviewed the three candidates simultaneously.

“We started the interview, and I told them, ‘Talk about some of your qualities and why you think you should be elected,’” George said.

After Miltenberger and Woodbury gave their answers, George turned to Lucio.

“She was very nervous. She started to answer the question, then she froze for a minute. Then I said, ‘Don’t worry, take your time.’ We could see she was uneasy,” he said.

George went to the next question, deciding to ask Lucio last and provide her more time to think about her answer. “I could tell she was still very uncomfortable.”

He doesn’t remember whether it was the second or third question, but at some point, Lucio said that she needed to use the restroom, saying she did not feel good. The interview was paused as the group waited for Lucio to return.

“I took it as nerves because, when she came back in, she still had trouble answering,” George said.

At the end of the interview, George told the candidates that he would not take any content out of the interview but would edit it for time, cutting out all the pauses.

“They were all okay with that, so I didn’t see any problem with it,” he said.

Along with Lucio, Woodbury cancelled events as well, citing prior engagements out of town. The Siuslaw News, which generally does not participate in election forums, also attempted to set up a debate between the candidates, but Lucio said she was uncomfortable with debating. She did not go on record giving her reasons.

“I was surprised, because I consider Geraldine to be a little more outgoing,” Greene said. “I know her in social situations, and we have some mutual friends in common. I just assumed that there was no issue as far as her being capable, qualified and prepared [to speak].”

So, Greene decided to talk with her about this issue.

“I do believe that I had a right to go — to ask her face to face — because I don’t know her well enough,” he said. “And I wanted her to be able to tell me the truth. And she did. And I was very grateful.”

Greene states that when he talked with Lucio, he learned that she was unaware of what’s expected of a city councilor and what the process will be.

“I explained this in great detail: The different parts of money that we use to manage the city, and that while the job has nothing to do with politics, it has everything to do with serving the community, being fiscally responsible and making sure we don’t violate our ethics and get the city involved,” said Greene. “The job entails 40 hours a month of backstory reading and research, so that when you get up in those two-hour meetings every other Monday, you know your stuff already.”

As for the tenor of the conversation, Greene stated it was friendly in nature, and that he was in no way looking for her to get out of the race.

“I hugged Geraldine,” he said. “I think the world of Geraldine. And there was in no way any kind of ‘gotcha’ attack sentiment at all. Not at all.”

It’s at that point Greene contacted Lacer — who had been having similar concerns — about his talk with Lucio.

 “No harm, no foul”

Before Greene’s meeting with Lucio, he and Lacer had shared some of their concerns about what they had been hearing regarding Lucio’s aversion to public speaking, which was an important topic for Lacer. To her, public speaking is vital to the position.

“As a councilor, not only do you do a variety of actual public speaking, going to talk to different groups about whatever city business, you also, every two weeks — up on a diocese, on camera — speak in front of a room full of people. You have to make decisions, you have to deliberate in public with fellow counselors and make difficult decisions. You have to publicly work through compromises with your fellow counselors. You have to be able to do that work to be an effective city councilor,” Lacer said.

And the microphone is always on. Even if there are no audience members, meetings are recorded, either through video and/or audio, and are available to the public.

Ensuring a candidate is ready for the position is something both Lacer and Greene said is important to them, as well as the amount of preparation they feel is necessary before each meeting.

“I have no personal knowledge of it, but I will say, at times in council, it has been apparent to me that one or more of my fellow councilors have appeared not to have read the packet because of the comments or questions they have asked,” said Lacer.

Given that Lacer is known for her research on matters facing the council, it stands to reason that replacing her with someone with a willingness to be just as thorough could be necessary in keeping a balance.

After speaking with Greene about his conversation with Lucio, Lacer felt their concerns had been confirmed.

“I respect and admire what I know about her,” Lacer said. “My feeling was, maybe she had signed up for something that ended up being more than she realized. I felt like throwing a life ring to someone who had maybe gotten in over their head.”

Lacer admits they were “acquaintances, not friends,” so there was no occasion that the two would happen to meet, so Lacer decided to write an email.

“My comfort in communication is writing versus talking, just a personal preference,” said Lacer, who wrote the following email, obtained by the Siuslaw News, to Lucio on Friday, Oct. 12.

 Dear Geraldine, how are you holding up? You’ve been on my mind recently. I’m writing because I am concerned. I have been told by multiple folks in town that you are struggling with a fundamental requirement of being a city councilor: Public speaking. If that is true, and you are not comfortable speaking to a room full of people, I’m asking that you withdraw from the election now, Geraldine. I believe that you care about Florence and that you want what is best for the community. It would be a terrible disservice to our citizens for you (to) continue in the election, if you are unable to serve effectively.

There is no shame in changing your mind based on new information. You may not have realized how much public speaking is required for Councilors; or you may not have recognized just how uncomfortable you are with public speaking. Most people are not comfortable with public speaking!

Now that you have a better understanding, it’s perfectly okay to say: ‘I didn’t understand what the position takes and I’ve realized this isn’t what I want to do; I’ve decided I am not running for council; due to new information, I am withdrawing my bid for election; I’ve decided I am called to serve the community in a different way; etc.’

I know this won’t be easy, Geraldine. In the past, I have changed my mind and quit positions that I had agreed to take on, after telling everyone that I was going to do the thing. It’s not easy, but it is the path of integrity. If you know that continuing on with what you said you were going to do, is not be the right decision for you, then the only ethical thing to do is stop. No harm, no foul.

Thank you for being willing to run for council, Geraldine. I admire your courage and your willingness to serve. And I trust that you will find the path to service that is the right fit for you. If I can help you with anything, please let me know.

 The letter specifically asked Lucio to drop out of the race, a sentiment that Lacer said she had intended.

“Yes, I was suggesting that it would be better for the city if she would drop [out]. Our citizens deserve to have an effective, capable, functioning city councilor,” said Lacer. “I would say that an in-person conversation would probably have been more appropriate, perhaps, but it wouldn’t have been easier for me because, again, I prefer to write. Still, to this date, I have had zero response from Geraldine and did not get any response from the email.”

Though Lacer said she meant the letter to be informational and persuasive, it could also be viewed as one sided. Beyond the question of how she went about it, there is the question of whether Lacer should have done it at all. Does a sitting councilor have the right to make such comments to a candidate?

 Cease and Desist

Regarding the incident, Lucio told the Siuslaw News, “It’s unfortunate that this has occurred. I would like this to be put behind us, move on and focus on the important issues facing our community. It will continue to be my goal to work with everyone for the betterment of our community.”

That is the only comment Lucio provided regarding the email. However, Mayor Henry said he felt it was important for the public to know what had occurred — something which may not have happened since Lacer sent the correspondence to Lucio using her personal email.

“I deliberately did not send it from what I knew to be a public-record email,” Lacer said. “I did not send it with the intent that it would be public. It was a private communication.”

The Siuslaw News was first introduced to the email by Councilor Woodbury, who agreed to show Lacer’s letter in the context of a larger email chain. That chain included Henry who, using his City of Florence email address, forwarded the letter to other councilors and Florence City Manager Erin Reynolds. By doing so, the correspondence became public record, to which Henry included the following comments:

 The following email was sent today from City Councilor Susy Lacer to the City Council Candidate, Geraldine Lucio. Council President Joshua Greene made a personal visit to Ms. Lucio’s place of business two days ago having basically the same conversation.

These communications by sitting city councilors are totally inappropriate and may well be more than inappropriate. To say the least, I am extremely disappointed to think that members of our city council would take steps to influence an election in our community. Candidate Lucio is very upset, so I strongly recommend that you cease and desist from this course of action.

 Greene responded briefly to Henry’s email with the following:

 Bottom line is, Geraldine is terrific in so many ways! She is not ready for council. She needs to learn and work her way up. Like the rest of us have. She ain’t got the chops … Yet.

 Henry was the first person involved with the incident to speak with the Siuslaw News. A week prior, he had received some pushback regarding a Guest Viewpoint he wrote in The Siuslaw News (Oct. 13) concerning the city collecting funding from the state. Some readers considered the statements to be partisan in nature, antithetical to the ethics of a bipartisan council. He later clarified it was his personal opinion, and a clarification appeared in the Oct. 17 edition’s Opinion page.

“It’s part of our council code of conduct that we identify the fact that we’re not speaking on behalf of the city,” he said. “There are people that feel that the mayor can’t have an opinion and can’t state that opinion. So, understand that any comments past this point are strictly my opinion, and not official on behalf of the City of Florence.”

After clarifying his position, Henry echoed the comments he made in the email.

“I think the actions of a few city councilors, which may or may not be criminal, are very much unethical and inappropriate,” he said.

The Siuslaw News contacted City Manager Reynolds to find if there were any city or state codes, laws or regulations that the councilors broke in speaking with Lucio. None were found, and their actions appear to be legal. But for Henry, the issues the email brought up go beyond concrete laws.

“My reasoning behind [releasing the email] was that a candidate for city council made us aware of an email, basically attempting to shame her into resigning from the campaign,” he said. “I thought that was definitely a campaign issue.”

Regarding the question of whether or not Lucio was qualified to hold a council seat, Henry quoted the city’s code.

“If you read our city code and city charter, the only qualifications are to live in the city for one year, to attend meetings and vote ‘yea’ or ‘nay,’” he said. “Nowhere does it state that being a gifted public speaker is required. We have councilors on our council who rarely speak, and we have had some in the past. And that’s fine. They don’t have to speak.”

To the mayor’s point, former councilor George Lyddon rarely spoke in meetings. And Woodbury, who was appointed to the remainder of Lyddon’s term, is also known to be quiet, though he has begun speaking more regularly in meetings. And public speaking is something that a candidate can learn.

But the question remains: If a sitting councilor does have concerns regarding a candidate’s ability to perform their job, how should they go about it voicing it? And should they?

“I think a councilor, or a mayor for that matter, can put signs in their yard,” Henry said. “They can put stickers on their car. We’re certainly welcome to go to rallies to support candidates, post on social media and do the things that any average citizen would do. But I don’t think it’s fair for a sitting city councilor to make a decision for the city of Florence. There’s nobody in town that doesn’t know that Joshua Greene [and Susy Lacer] are city councilors. Implicit, therein, is the perception — whether it’s stated or in fact exists — that, ‘Oh gosh, the city council doesn’t want me on the city council.’”

When told of the mayor’s response, Lacer disagreed.

“I’m very intentional about what email address I’m using when I send messages,” she said. “So, this message was sent from my personal work email to Geraldine. It was not sent from my city council email. In my mind, I was not speaking as a city councilor, but as a resident of Florence, a fellow citizen, an acquaintance of Geraldine’s ... I obviously didn’t intend for my email to Geraldine to become public record, as it has become. It was a private communication. I think people communicate differently in private than they do in official campaign literature.”

In Henry’s view, this wasn’t about a councilor giving advice to a candidate. This was about a sitting councilor’s attempting to get a candidate to drop out of the race.

“If you read the words in that letter, ‘there’s no shame in stepping down…’ Well, to me, that infers that there’s shame in staying in the race. In effect, if Ms. Lucio steps down, that makes it an uncontested race where their candidate gets elected by default,” he said.

Henry’s use of the phrase “their candidate” was just one of several indicators that prompted the Siuslaw News to delve deeper into the possible partisanship nature of the current city council race.

“All politics is local”

Theories regarding the “political makeup” of the non-partisan council abound. Which explains why some in the community have come to place particular importance on this year’s race. The general consensus goes like this: As it stands right now, councilors Greene, Lacer and Ron Preisler make up a “liberal” voting bloc in the council while Woodbury and Henry make up a “conservative” voting bloc. With Lacer leaving the council, that would leave a 2/2 split between conservatives and liberals (should Woodbury be reelected.) Therefore, who wins this election could theoretically tip the direction of the council.

This leads to questions of the political leanings of candidates Miltenberger and Lucio.

Miltenberger is a self-professed champion for the Florence Democratic Club. Her political views, as well as some of the legal and political issues that have revolved around her campaign, will be looked at in part two of this series in the Saturday, Oct. 27, edition of the Siuslaw News.

For Lucio, she generally speaks in nonpartisan terms, defining her politics as independent, though that is an assumption that may be in doubt. Lucio has a strong conservative base, is financially backed by Republican donors and, as the Siuslaw News has found, is receiving help from a conservative campaign manager and treasurer — both of whom live and operate outside the Siuslaw region. More of that will also be covered in Saturday’s edition.

With Miltenberger cast as the liberal and Lucio cast as the conservative, this council race could be seen as a fight for the ideological makeup of the city council itself, i.e., if Lucio wins, the council tips conservative; if Miltenberger wins, it swings liberal.

In his initial interview, Henry framed the argument in a way that closely mirrors what many agree has been a breakdown of bipartisanship in the country.

“Just from what I’ve observed, and I’m not a political expert, but we have chaos going on at a national level and, to some degree, at the state level,” he said. “It’s either one bashing the other, or another bashing them. As I say, the 20 or 19 years I’ve been here, we’ve never had this in our community, but all of a sudden, we do. I believe [the email is] politically motivated.”

But when pressed on the suggestion from his earlier comment that Miltenberger was Greene and Lacer’s “their candidate,” he backtracked.

“I won’t get into that,” he said. “I think there’s clearly. … No, I can’t answer that question. I wouldn’t say that. I would just say that the results of them shaming [Lucio] into stepping down would, in effect, get the other candidate elected.”

There is little evidence that Miltenberger, Greene and Lacer are actively working together. The councilors names don’t appear on the candidate’s advertisements, and they are rarely seen in the same circles.

“I seriously don’t know Susy,” Miltenberger said. “She’s our liaison to EMAC (the Environmental Management Advisory Committee), and I know her through that, but I don’t know her politics. I don’t know Joshua, either. I really don’t know them really well.”

Miltenberger is openly active in the Democratic community, taking part in many political demonstrations in town. Lacer, on the other hand, generally stays out of such endeavors, listing herself as “unaffiliated.”

“They used to call unaffiliated ‘independent,’ but then they formed the Independent Party, so I’m clear to say ‘unaffiliated,’” Lacer said. “In some areas, I’m probably considered liberal. In some areas, I believe I would be considered conservative.

“… I don’t believe city council elections should be partisan; it is a non-partisan position for city councilors and mayors. I will say, recently, partisanship is becoming an issue in this election, and I find that unfortunate.”

As to the suggestion that the more liberal councilors vote in a bloc together, Greene was emphatic with his response: “I swear to God, I don’t call Ron or Suzy up.”

He stated he was moderate-left in his political beliefs, but tries not to make it an issue.

“Twenty-three years I’ve seen this community, I’ve never seen partisan politics enter this election. Not once. I’m sure people say it under their voice, ‘Oh they’re a Republican or a Democrat,’ but I have friends on both sides. It’s about knowing each other and working together,” Greene said.

Even Henry stated that, before the email, politics did not yet dampen the council’s ability to work together.

“Well, obviously the people who sit on the council have various viewpoints, backgrounds, political affiliations,” he said. “I have my own. To this point, we have kept them pretty much out of our feelings. We’ve worked pretty well as a team moving ahead.”

If there is one councilor that would be considered liberal, it’s Preisler, who began his interview for this article with the following statement: “I need to say upfront, that I am a registered Democrat, I’m blue through and through, with the exception of a few years where I voted for Ronald Reagan. All politics is local, but the council has managed to work together to find a balance.”

But as a Democrat who is actively part of the Florence Democrat Club, Preisler can see how people think there’s a partisan divide to the council.

“When I sit in consideration on the council, I don’t consider it as a Democrat,” he said. “I consider it with my values, and my thinking. You can say that I’m a liberal, or progressive. I would hope people would recognize that. But on the same token, I look at what we’re doing and try and look at my justifications.”

Preisler does not always agree with Lacer and Greene, pointing out that they often disagree on major decisions. For example, when voting on the remodeling City Hall, Preisler was the only council member to vote against it.

“My concern was cost,” said Preisler, who has also voted unanimously with the rest of the council and at odds with his political leanings. One instance occurred last January, when Miltenberger applied for a vacant city council position to replace outgoing councilor Lyddon, Preisler — the only council member openly endorsing Miltenberger in this election — voted with the rest of the council to temporarily appoint Woodbury instead.

Preisler said he was not aware of any of the issues surrounding Lucio, Greene and Lacer when the email situation was occurring, and that he found out about the incident when reading Henry’s email.

“I didn’t think it was the appropriate step [to release the email],” he said. “It’s kind of washing your laundry in public. If it were me, I would not have done that.”

When Preisler was asked if Lacer suggesting to Lucio that she step down was inappropriate, he stated “no.”

“If Susy was staying on the board, then it could possibly be construed that way,” he said. “Knowing that she is not going to be on the board, then I think she’s looking for the best person to take her place. … Susy did not go out and run a campaign against Geraldine. Susy was talking directly to Geraldine.”

Based on the premise that Greene was trying to help Lucio, and that Lacer was expressing an opinion — with neither one looking to influence the election politically — then where did politics come in? As part of its reporting, the Siuslaw News has obtained and utilized public records including candidate files, court records and financial statements in an effort to answer that question. Unfortunately, however, the representation of one side of this discussion will still be limited.

After speaking with Henry at the beginning of this report, the Siuslaw News began receiving questions from the public about his involvement with the Lucio and Woodbury campaigns. After gathering information from multiple sources, the Siuslaw News asked to speak with Henry on that subject and others, but he declined to comment. So too did Katie Prosser, Lucio’s campaign press agent, when asked questions about the campaign.

Woodbury has yet to respond to emails, and Lucio has not agreed to be interviewed.

Which leaves Preisler to speculate where the partisanship came in.

“Somehow, or another, the [email] went from Geraldine to the mayor,” he said. “That’s where the partisanship, in my mind, comes in.”

“I just feel that the total story isn’t being told,” Greene said. “And it’s being jaded by these ‘gotcha’ politics — Maureen vs. Geraldine, the Republicans vs. the Democrats, and Joe being so focused on thinking he needs a partisan council — is to me distracting. I don’t want to look at it like ‘I got one Democrat, or two Democrats or three Democrats.’ I haven’t thought about our council, in that way, until lately. The last eight to 10 months, I started seeing it that way, because that’s what Joe keeps presenting to me. I’ve just been blind to it.”

At that point, he paused.

“I know I’m giving you a lot of stuff to think about,” he said. “You have any questions here?”

In Part II of this series: The campaigns of Lucio and Miltenberger, and the potential precedent being set for the future of local, non-partisan elections.