Body cameras and unhoused management raises debate at Council

December 23 - On Monday, Dec. 12, the City Council convened for their only meeting of the month to discuss several key items on the agenda.

City negotiates right of way for infrastructure on East Fillmore

With all councilors in attendance, the first item on the agenda was the proposed vacation of right away, an area of 502 square feet at Resurrection Life Church. It was discovered in the course of the Fillmore Stormwater Quality Facility that a portion of the infrastructure of East Fillmore Ave. was on private property and not within the public right of way.

In a memo presented to council by City Planner, Eric Monagan, City staff worked with the property owners to identify the areas of vacation, 198 square feet of right to Resurrection Life Church in exchange for 502 square feet of right-of-way to the City of Cottage Grove. This would ensure that all public infrastructure would lie within the public right of way of East Fillmore Ave.

It was recommended by staff to council that a Public Hearing be held on the proposed Ordinance. The purpose is to receive comments for the planned vacation of the 198 sq ft. right away. The mayor called for a hearing, seeing there were no speakers, the hearing was closed.

Elected mayor and council proclaimed

Item six on the consent agenda was approved by council with a proclamation regarding the November 8 General Election and the certification of its results and the acceptance of an easement for a 200’ ft. sewer extension line into Cottage Grove Airport. The proclamation names Candace Solsebee mayor for two years; while Chalice Savage, Dana Merryday, and Mike Fleck are named as duly elected councilors to their respective offices by a majority of votes in this election cycle.

Body Worn Cameras

Interim Police Chief, Jefferey Groth presented background information for the need on the implementation of “a body worn camera program for the Cottage Grove Police Department and to procure the associated equipment.”

The five-year contract for review by council would be secured by Axon Enterprise Inc., an American Scottsdale, Arizona-based company which develops technology and weapons products for military, law enforcement, and civilians whose products include Body worn cameras (BWC), digital evidence management, and electroshock weapons.

Body worn cameras are noted by Police Chief Groth to have become an industry standard in Oregon policing, and their need after multiple incidents, including the September 1st arrest of Alexander Harrelson which led to the use of force to arrest him, reinforced by the demand of community input for the digital technology.

Groth also noted that Axon also provides BWC programs to as many as 32 cities across Oregon comparable in size to Cottage Grove including Medford, Bend, Springfield, Corvallis and Coburg. The total cost of the five-year program is $205,700 made in five equal payments. And while it’s not in this year’s current fiscal budget, staff identified funds in the Narcotics Fund, which can be used for law enforcement.

Identifying and implementing the purchase of the BWC program is a priority for the Cottage Grove Police department according to Groth, he believes that this expenditure represents an important investment in the professionalism and future of the police department. Some of the equipment models the police force presently uses are older.

The program includes 15 new Taser 7 CED’s, and 15 Body worn cameras with signal side arm devices for automatic camera activation when a firearm is drawn. Warranties, licensing of software, including live streaming and unlimited storage for each camera plus all accessories would be included. Equipment would be replaced at thirty and sixty months and it includes professional training and technical support.

The approval of the program was recommended to council with a total cost spread over five years, potentially saving the city nearly 7.2 million dollars “compared to purchasing all of the equipment and services on one year annual contracts” according to Roth.

Councilor Ervin noted that “these can be difficult decisions to make” and asked Groth what the vetting process was for other comparable cities to arrive at Axon for services and whether or not we can look at other vendors for similar services when contract renewal is considered. Groth called his experience with the services and equipment as “top of the line” and that he was looking for a “good option” for the city.

Axon came under scrutiny, first in June 2022, after the company proposed a plan for taser-armed drones to stop school shootings. Nine members of the ethics board resigned after expressing disagreement with the plan and issuing a unanimous statement of concern. And recently, a pronounced decline in short interest investors of the company after questions of the company's stock was raised, suggesting overvaluing after a year of significant gains for Axon.

After additional discussion on taser upgrades, the safety and reliability of cloud storage for BWC’s data, and how soon the program will be implemented, Groth estimated within “ a couple of months” if the council approved the costs. After City Recorder, Mindy Roberts called the roll, all councilors were in unanimous approval of the plan and passed the resolution for the expenditure.

Repealing Resolution 1865 and adopting City Council procedural rules

City Manager Richard Meyers gave background on significant changes to adjust procedure to accommodate decision making using virtual formats for council meetings and time allowed for public comment by citizens which are not on the agenda, which would be reduced to three minutes per person and is being combined to take place prior to public hearings. Councilor Solesbee moved to postpone a decision until the new council was formed.

After public comment and some discussion by Councilor Fleck over the origin of the resolution, concerns were raised by Councilor Ervin over which rules are being followed strictly and loosely by council citing confusion and Councilor Kenneth Roberts stating the “document is far from being done”. Mayor Jeff Gowing recognized the council needed more time to review the document before its adoption.

Management plan for use of public lands by unhoused individuals

Meyers also gave background on a proposed resolution adopting a Management Plan for the use of public lands by unhoused people. The resolution is considered the “first step in codifying the plan which does not prohibit camping on public land but creates and describes the process for designating the specific places that camping can occur and when camping can occur.”

According to a city memo, it names the Hwy 99 Emergency Shelter site as operational with Carry It Forward serving as outreach, conducting assessments to determine eligibility at the facility. Those that are turned away due to capacity or eligibility are still allowed to camp on public land. The Management Plan would establish three levels of use of the properties.

Level one sites designated to allow camping are the former warming shelter site at 224 North 12th Street, the Douglas Property at 443 North Douglas Avenue, and Riverside Park, which would be the only location that does not have a fence but will have a clear delineation area where camping is allowed and park hours would have to be observed. Port-a-potties, handwashing stations, trash cans and sanitation services will be provided by the city at a cost to the designated camping areas.

Public comment was held with mixed feelings expressed by those in attendance. Councilor Fleck then moved to adopt the resolution with a second by Councilor Roberts. Discussion was open and Councilor Solesbee stated she was not in support of the plan, first suggesting a “dusk until dawn'' plan to council but was told there was not enough manpower. Councilor Roberts agreed that there were concerns, citing many existing problems at the 12th Street site as an example but that the resolution was meant to protect parks and public lands.

Councilor Jon Stinnett asked Meyers what the city was doing with the redirected manpower that Solesbee suggested the city was utilizing. “Were sending the contractor to empty out the port-a-potties twice a week, dumpsters three times a week because a lot stuff ends up donated that ends up in the dumpster, just because [the donations] are not appropriate to be bringing to the homeless camp.”

Councilor Savage suggested leading with love and kindness and asked, “in so many different avenues, how can we come together and be united?” Meyers' response indicated that with the Hwy 99 site at capacity and a trend of multiple evictions, including a local 90-year-old couple with nowhere to go, other sites are needed because he predicts, “it’s going to continue to grow”.

Savage also proposed a “dusk until dawn” but Meyers cited the Johnson and Blake cases versus Grants Pass. Due to those cases, campers can legally move back and forth between camps in an attempt to stay warm and dry and can potentially make better management assessments and connections for those campers which are stable at a site.

Councilor Fleck acknowledged concerns at the 12th Street site and that as a small community Cottage Grove “does not have the capacity to serve a huge volume of folks.” He suggested partnering with Lane County Community Action Agency. Fleck would ultimately like to see them taking over all operations because he believes they have the skill sets to do so.

Funded programs by Community Action Agency (CAA) for Lane County include “nutrition, rental assistance, homelessness prevention programs, low-income energy assistance, weatherization, Community Services Block Grant, and other funding as it becomes available. Much of the funding of the CAA comes from Oregon Housing and Community Services.” according to the county’s website.

Councilor Ervin expressed concern over issues the city will be faced with down the road if council arrives at hasty decisions to keep the momentum of the plan going. While Councilor Solesbee asked for clarification from the City Manager on what he thought “dusk to dawn” looked like. Meyers said multiple staff would be there between 5pm to 7am, to monitor and check people in and out of the sites, and campers would be forced to stay at other parks until they can return to the designated sites.

Solesbee again suggested trying the “dusk til dawn” model after seeing problems arise at the 12th Street site, although Meyers noted that campers will still be able to move into other parks and areas of the city, if not the designated camps in the management plan. Councilor Fleck hypothesizes that under a dusk til dawn model, management of the parks would be left to Cottage Grove police.

There was no further discussion on the matter and after the recorder called the roll, the youth representative abstained from the vote, Councilors Solesbee and Ervin voted against the resolution while Savage, Stinnett, and Roberts and Mayor Gowing voted in favor.