‘Significant Controversy’ — Pt. II
Florence Mayoral Candidate Joshua Greene
Editor’s Note: Siuslaw News’ election coverage has included four pieces on the Florence mayoral election between Joshua Greene and Rob Ward. Both candidates sat with the newspaper for two hours, which prompted a look at their accomplishments, political stances and visions for the City of Florence. This is the final piece of their stories: addressing some of the biggest moments of their careers in government. Part I, featuring Ward, was published on Oct. 19. Part II features Greene and was published on TheSiuslawNews.com on Oct. 20, the day that ballots will go in the mail, and will be in the print edition on Oct. 26.
“You may not be happy with my actions or my activities and I understand that, but that’s not the issue,” Joshua Greene said at a June 26, 2019, meeting of the Florence Urban Renewal Agency (FURA) just before he resigned.
For months, he and members of the Florence City Council had been arguing about how, and if, the Public Art Committee (PAC) should be funded. Greene felt that both PAC and FURA could help build public art into an economic foundation for the community. But the majority of the council at the time was going against Greene’s broader vision, and in the process, its funding.
“... The way we did it was by changing the priorities as opposed to coming out and voting on it. This is why this whole thing has gone south,” he said. “The issue is that now that public art has finally gotten up to speed, did the job it was meant to do and is ready to throw down four to six new projects that would happen in the next two years … there is no funding and no opportunity to have a grant writer.”
The question of his resignation was brought up during this month's Coast Radio Candidate Forum by moderator George Henry, who spoke to mayoral candidates Greene and Rob Ward.
“Both of you have been in high profile positions that had some significant controversy associated with that that ultimately ended up in resignations,” the moderator said.
“I’m not sure I see the distinction between a two-year term now and where my head’s at, and with where the city is at now, and the issues that I’m trying to focus on as priorities,” Greene answered. “That was a very loaded situation, in which both sides were very heated.”
While his campaign has focused on topics such as housing and stronger partnerships, some of his core talking points are issues that stem directly from those times. In a bid to clear misconceptions and get a better understanding of his thought process, Greene agreed to speak with Siuslaw News in greater detail about the “significant controversies” of his career.
This article’s focus is not on the details of the conflicts of the past, but Greene’s thoughts on three main issues that have come up in recent debates and conversations — his vision of public art, changes to city code and what he felt he should have done differently as city councilor.
“We have a retirement community that saved Florence back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and it was successful in bringing so many people here and selling homes and real estate,” Greene said. “But over the years, what you've seen is less and less families, less and less kids in school, a demise of small businesses.”
Since the pandemic, things have become harder, with Florence’s well-documented lack of available workforce housing and a dwindling workforce.
“Before COVID, this was all happening, but I just saw the arts,” he said.
Greene’s vision was, and still is, to reverse some of those economic losses by turning art into a fundamental bedrock of the Florence economy — “outdoor museum with sculpture and murals everywhere,” which would beautify the city, “which in turn leads to people moving here, creating jobs.”
He continued, “If we could create a certain language that when people think of Florence, it's not just a retirement community, but, ‘They’ve got a fantastic art program — let’s go see it.’” Greene was chair and founding member of FURA, which was created in 2006 with the goal of revitalizing parts of south Florence. To focus on the “outdoor museum,” PAC was created in 2015.
Greene listed city staff and volunteers who helped work on the plan, while PAC created subcommittees, researched examples — and “became very exciting.” But after three years, while popular programs like Art Exposed were beginning to grow, many in the community didn’t understand the grander vision of PAC.
Greene used the Quince Street Mural project as an example.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “We went through all the channels, we had at least 10 public meetings and very few people came.”
Siuslaw News hosted some of those sparsely attended meetings in 2018. While the attendees were largely for the idea of public art, there was a lack of consensus on what PAC should be. Should all art be themed, such as a nautical style? Would the city lose its current character? What if people didn’t like the art?
But for the mural, “it wasn’t until the mock up drawing was put in the newspaper that people started going 'What the hell's going on?'” Greene said. The discussion around the mural was polarizing, and it continued for months.
A common argument against funding PAC — basically, since not everyone would like the same art, it’s best left to the private sector.
“Art is subjective. It can be challenging. It can be exciting,” Greene said. “But because art is subjective, there's always the problem that some people don't get it. … And that's okay. Take someone to a museum, they walk around, they don't get it. Walk them around the museum and explain a little bit about the artists, they begin to appreciate it differently.”
But what if that still didn’t work? Greene was undeterred.
“So let me try to win everybody over, so they embrace the idea,” he said. “This is my opportunity to do so.”
But even some of those who could support Greene’s vision have said that after seven years, PAC has not lived up to its vision of being an economic driver.
That, he agrees with.
When Siuslaw News asked Greene his thoughts on PAC, if changes to procedures during the latter part of his tenure hurt PAC, he said, “It suffered drastically, and it’s still dysfunctional.”
It’s a phrase he mirrored in a campaign video, describing changes he would make to the committee selection process. Mayor Joe Henry commented on the video that Greene was “tearing down the successes that the staff and council have enjoyed.”
Meanwhile, PAC is celebrating new partnerships in its Art Exposed program, expanding its locations and selecting new works. The work has been praised by Henry, city councilors and council candidates, along with community leaders, tourists and many in the public.
If people are happy with the results, how is PAC dysfunctional?
“Money is essential to keep public art public and keep it going. If you were to research public art around the country, all of them would get funding from some form of government,” Greene said.
That money can fund larger projects, from murals and other forms of arts to events, and “that’s how you get public art into society.”
But one of the early complaints about the mural was that it included out-of-town artists.
“If you're doing a public art program, you can't have it all done by the same group of artists; you have to have it done by different people with different passions and different visions, because that's what makes it educational,” Greene said. “And that's not to take away from our local artists.”
Why should taxpayers pay for art, when the money could be used for housing or upgrades to city services, like parks?
“FURA, which I was the chair of, with full support of the agency, decided that we would allocate $125,000 per year, for a two-year period, for public art to get up and running,” Greene said. “We never spent a single dime of that money. The professional grant writer we hired found 40 different programs — 40! The first grant we got was for $30,000, which is what paid the artists to do the mural and the preparation for the wall. It's not just city tax dollars.”
Toward the last two years of his tenure, the city council voted on three key decisions that Greene says undercut the ability of PAC to fulfill its mission:
- The city’s ability to hire out a grant writer
- A change in how FURA members were picked
- A change in how all committees were picked.
For PAC, the first two revolved around money.
The city council “took away the ability to hire professional grant writers, which was key to our future,” Greene said. “[City] Department heads are very good at writing grants for what they are good at, but they are overwhelmed already, and understaffed and overworked. Every committee could use it. EMAC could use a good grant writer; there's money out there with climate challenges.”
With hiring professional grant writers gone, PAC would look to rely on FURA. But in 2019, Greene and the rest of the council debated over whether or not the mayor would have final approval over FURA members.
“[FURA] was created to be an independent agency with its own budget,” Greene said. “And the number one thing we learned in two years of research, visiting 60 urban renewal agencies, was the council and the mayor should never have control. You have to have enough independent representatives of all the other [taxing] districts that can overrule the council and the mayor.”
In a split decision, the city council voted to allow the mayor to have final say on selecting FURA members, and afterwards Greene said FURA stopped funding PAC.
“Current interpretation of the Florence Charter allows the mayor to make the final decision on volunteers on city committees,” Greene said in a video on his campaign Facebook page. “... The mayor's vote was supposed to be a tie if there was a discrepancy — that has changed under the current mayor.”
To Siuslaw News, he said, “The volunteering process has completely got to be overhauled.”
Begin with the applications for city committees, Greene said. Have them be explicit in what the committee’s needs are, and what is expected — experience, hours, etc.
“It's going to be tough, it's going to be work. Are you willing to work? We want you. You will be respected, you'll be treated with dignity. We'll be listening, and you are part of a team.”
The council would then discuss the best fit.
In the 2019 committee selection process, there were deep fissures between Greene and Henry on who should be on PAC, and who was qualified. Greene said many of his suggestions were ignored.
In PAC, discord followed, with two resignations occurring, one blaming Greene, the other Henry.
But Henry took issue with Greene about what occurred after he left the council.
In a comment on Greene’s campaign video, he wrote, “...in the last two rounds of committee appointments, the appointments were made exactly as the majority of the council recommended.”
As to problems within PAC now, Greene didn’t know — “I’m not in the day-to-day anymore.”
“If you're not working together, you're going to be frustrated, angry, and you're going to leave,” Greene said. “You're gonna think less of our government, regardless of who you like and don't like on the council.”
Word spreads, people don’t volunteer. And Greene, in part, helped cause those feelings.
“You’ve got to understand, ‘18 and ‘19 were the most difficult years of my eight years of service,” Greene said. “So many things that I was proud of creating the years before were being destroyed. … It was personal.”
And specifically, he felt that it was personal between him and Henry.
“In addition to the personal governing differences between Joe and myself, the bigger concern was how I witnessed in real time his dismantling of the balance of how the energy created by the ‘City in Motion’ was being threatened by poor decisions, which scared me,” Greene said. “The council, city staff and volunteers were getting anxious seeing all the good work that made us a unified governing body disappear. The safety net we provided to all was removed and it cost the city a loss in momentum, introducing dissatisfaction and frustration for all.”
As to his reaction to the situation, he said, “When you’re in a corner, sometimes you don’t act smart.”
The details from that time included how city council and FURA meetings were sometimes wracked with heated arguments, with Greene and Henry in particular prone to outbursts. At one point, Greene hurled expletives as he walked out of a meeting. Public art became polarized, spurred on by hyper partisan groups, personal interests and misconstrued actions.
“Our pushing back against each other did not change either of our positions — but our discourse was damaging to all who witnessed it,” Greene continued. “That is my lesson from those times. That is why unity is so essential to positive solutions.”
What would he have done differently?
“I should have kept my mouth shut, instead of responding so quickly,” Greene said. “I should have waited and thought it through. I can’t make it personal. I need to compromise. I need to listen.”
If people can’t accept city volunteers as human, “with their gifts and their flaws, then you're putting us on a pedestal we don't belong on — it's not possible to not make mistakes in life. It is possible to admit them and correct yourself,” Greene said. “People need to understand that underneath it, I’m really rooting for them, too. I am who I am. And I love this community. That's why I'm running. I want to see the city come back to a different level. I believe in this community.”