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Mayor, three council members recalled in Cascade Locks

September 24, 2011

CASCADE LOCKS - Soon there will be three, but for how long?

In a close, consistent election, Cascade Locks City Council member Lance Masters kept his seat while voters have recalled the mayor and three council members.

Voters elected to retain Masters by a 60-40 percent margin, while the margin was uniformly just above or below a 53-47 margin for recalling Mayor George Fischer and council members Kevin Benson, Tiffany Pruit and Don Haight.

(See results box, at right.)

Election certification by the county would leave only three council members: Tom Cramblett and Eva Zerfing - who were not subject to recall - and Masters.

"I am grateful the community chose to keep me on council," said Masters, who was elected in 2008. "I want to be part of the solution for getting the city back on track."

"If the voters decide I was recalled, that's the will of the people; I'll follow that," Fischer said Thursday, declining further comment until after certification.

"They won. That's about it," said Haight, who took office in November 2010 along with Fischer.

Neither Benson nor Pruit were available for comment; nor were Cramblett and Zerfing.

The recall effort against Fischer, Benson, Pruit and Haight was organized by the group calling itself Five Alarm Recall; the recall against Masters was separate. The Five Alarm recall was filed Aug. 4; Michael Blakly filed the recall against Masters a week later.

Five Alarm cited a variety of concerns with the officials proposed for recall, but the central issue was Fischer and the councilors' actions (inside and outside of public meetings) affecting the city's emergency services department, including reduction of the budget and what they argued was the forcing out of former fire chief Jeff Pricher in July.

The council subsequently appointed Assistant Chief Jess Zerfing as acting fire chief, a position he still holds, in early August. However, all but three of the city's volunteer firefighters either resigned or took leave of absence in protest of Pricher's departure; more resignations came after the appointment of Jess Zerfing, who lost a no-confidence vote by the firefighters on Aug. 8.

Masters said, "I'm hopeful we can get our volunteers back in the department next month, rather than longer. That's our No. 1 goal. The community has an expectation that we provide public services."

The full council, including those recalled, will meet Monday night as scheduled. The mayor and Pruit, Haight and Benson are still legally in office until the certification is done.

"We have an agenda and city business to take care of and I expect we will do so," Masters said. Monday's agenda includes action on bonds for a subdivision paving project and continuation of discussion of a work plan for interim city administrator Paul Koch.

"Hopefully we will continue to do the business of the city in an orderly fashion," Masters said.

But the biggest item of business facing the city in the coming weeks will wait for the Oct. 10 meeting, or possibly a special meeting, according to City Attorney Alex Sosnkowski: how to fill the mayor and three council seats, assuming that the results hold up after the formality of certification by Hood River County Elections Department.

"If we're careful and smart, we should come through this just fine," Koch said.

What is certain is that any new appointees would stay in place until the next general election, in November 2012.

The county has 20 days, until Oct. 10, to certify the election. There are 13 "challenge" ballots, those that County Elections pulled out due to uncertain signature accuracy or other issues. The 13 voters were notified by letter and have until Oct. 1 to respond in person.

The City of Cascade Locks' next step will be to appoint one or more council members; Sosnknowski and Koch are developing a set of options and a timeline for the process.

Following certification, given that four elected officials will no longer be in office, "The city charter and reality put the three into the position where they have to be the decision makers," Koch said. "In reality, if it's the three (in office), business has to go on.

"We want to move forward as quickly as possible to at least put one person in place," Sosnkowski said. One option is to appoint one person to fill one council seat, and the four can then appoint a council president. (City business can be conducted without a mayor.)

The complication is that with only four members in place, "The council has to have the affirmative vote of four councilors to pass any item of business," Sosnkowski said. That means no ordinances or resolutions could be adopted other than by 4-0 vote, according to Sosnknowski.

She said, "We are not going to recommend they rush and appoint one person, but as soon as we have (certification) the three council members will need to meet and discuss how we will fill all four positions and then go through a process of doing so."

Sosnkowski said the appointments are position specific: one person named to fill Fischer's position, and so on.

Koch said, "The attorney and I are putting the materials together so we will be ready when they are. I'll be talking to individuals to see how they will want to proceed.

"This is new and uncharted for these individuals," Koch said. "They will have to be confident and be doubly sure what we are advising is in keeping with state law and city charter."

As to the Sept. 20 election, Koch said of those officials who were recalled, "I think they accept it, but it hasn't changed the relationship, the day-in-day-out about city stuff and moving forward."

Masters said he hopes the reconstituted council can turn its attention immediately to rebuilding the emergency services department.

"I expect that to happen as soon as county certifies the election," Masters said.

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