‘Significant Controversy’ — Part I
Florence Mayoral Candidate Rob Ward
Editor’s Note: In the special Friday edition on Oct. 14, Siuslaw News included three 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 II will be released at TheSiuslawNews.com on Oct. 20, the day that ballots will go in the mail, and will be in the print edition on Oct. 26.
“I have a hard time asking this next question — I did not write it,” George Henry, moderator of the Coast Radio Candidate Forum on Oct. 5, said while speaking with City of Florence mayoral candidates Joshua 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.”
Bringing up the past was not without warrant — Siuslaw News also received questions about both candidates, from letters to the editor, social media comments, tips from the community and sometimes from the candidates themselves.
But in a bid to clear misconceptions and get a better understanding of their thought processes, both Ward and Greene agreed to speak with Siuslaw News in greater detail about their “significant controversies” and what they learned from them.
For first in a two-part article, Ward elected to discuss his resignation from the Dunes City Council in 2005, a perceived “Good Old Boy” network and how he can keep his business separate from his position as mayor, if elected. What follows is not a full and detailed account of these issues, but a focus is on how Ward viewed each situation, why he chose different actions and how his approach would differ in the future.
“My character and who I am is very important to me,” Ward said.
And in 2005, a land development he spearheaded in Dunes City, while he was mayor, brought up questions to his character.
Ward, who owns and operates Northwest Land Surveying, went through archived articles on his resignation as mayor.
At the time, Dunes City had partnered with Lane Council of Governments (LCOG) to rework the city’s building codes, particularly in regards to subdivisions. Reportedly, the short-staffed city had only one, newly hired person working on the codes.
At the same time, subdivisions were coming into the small city. Regionwide, cities were discussing severe housing shortages, while nationally the housing market was blowing up. Locally, the issue was balancing housing along with the unique environmental needs of Dunes City, as concerns were rising over the health of the lakes in the area. Algae blooms were beginning to appear.
According to The Register-Guard, there were six subdivisions being planned as the building codes were being updated. Siuslaw News reported five. Keeping in mind the issue took place 17 years ago, Ward only remembered three or four subdivisions at the time, one of which he was the owner: Sunset Cove.
According to Ward, before he began working on the subdivision, he went to the State Ethics Committee to gain guidance on how to balance his elected position and the development.
“I had to exclude myself from anything at the council level,” Ward said. “I can't remember if it was okay for me to present something to the planning commission. I may have had to have my business partner do that. And I wasn't part of the discussion. But in terms of the council, I would even walk out of the room.”
And it’s a process he’d gone through before.
“In Florence, I planned and developed an 85-lot subdivision,” Ward said. “Being the mayor of Florence was never an issue. I always followed the rules of conduct.”
With the new codes in place, Sunset Cove was approved through the planning commission. However, a complaint was filed about the project, claiming that the development didn’t contain necessary building plans, sewage considerations, lot size requirements or consideration of impacts.
Afterwards, LCOG Associate Planner Hilary Dearbon took partial responsibility.
“We messed up,” she said. “‘The first applications that went through, we did not do the best of our ability.”
However, Dearborn also put blame on Ward, claiming the Sunset Cove project lacked a design team to examine the impact of the housing on the neighborhood.
Accusations from the public began linking Ward with the actual creation of the codes. Ward states he never worked on the codes.
“I don't remember her. I'm not sure what mistakes she's referring to were made,” Ward said. “To be honest, I really don't.”
As this complaint was brought up, it was being reported by both newspapers that Ward had business dealings with a total of five developments.
“I can’t remember five, I can only remember three,” Ward said.
The Siuslaw News also reported that Ward’s role in the developments were diverse, “either owner, developer, surveyor, or engineer.”
“First of all, I’m not an engineer,” Ward said. “I would say that was a mischaracterization. If that’s a Siuslaw News article, that’s a mischaracterization. Sunset Cove, I was the developer. That's the only project I was the developer of.”
The rest, he said, would have been as a surveyor.
Accusations began to come in from a small group of residents that Ward was manipulating code for financial benefit. One article went in depth on the matter, speaking with Ward, LCOG, and those with concerns.
Soon after, Ward sent a letter to the city council, asking them to rescind the application so it could be examined with correct specifications. While Siuslaw News reported this, throughout the next two weeks, more accusations came in through letters to the editor.
One claimed Ward was working with LCOG, being “the only person in the city who knows code because the new employee didn’t know anything.”
And there were questions on how much development should occur in Dunes City.
“The last thing Dunes City needs is any more development until this and other serious matters are better understood and our beautiful lake is healed,” another letter to the editor said.
There were only a few letters, but Ward ended up withdrawing the application and resubmitting it. Still, letters continued their accusations.
On Oct. 15, 2005, less than one month after the controversies were being publicly aired, Ward tendered his resignation in a shocked Dunes City Council meeting.
“I have been the mayor of Dunes City for almost nine years. It was a position that I had not intended to run for but was recruited for,” Ward’s resignation letter began. “During my time as mayor ,I have come to enjoy the relationships with all those who have dedicated a considerable amount of time to making our city what it is today.”
After listing accomplishments, Ward said there were a “small number of very vocal citizens who have a clouded vision of the difference between perception and reality. … It now seems that earning a living in Dunes City and being the mayor have become a distraction to Dunes City and those who work hard to make Dunes City a great place to live.”
He then officially resigned, listing all the people that he had worked with.
If the law was on his side, and he did everything right, why not stay and work with people to understand his point of view?
“It was an assault on my character, as a person,” Ward said. “Like I said in the letter that I wrote, I just felt that it was important to me that if that subdivision got approved, that nobody could say I got preferential treatment. that was foremost in my mind.”
However, this incident lasted a little more than a month, with only a small number of individuals making accusations.
Other mayors and councilors, rightfully or wrongfully, have been accused of wrongdoing for decades, and it can be for long periods — in some cases continuing long after retirement. Would he be able to withstand criticism in the future?
“Keep in mind that in this situation, this had to do with a development that had a financial impact on me personally,” Ward said. “I mean, you don't pursue a development if you don't think it's going to be successful.”
The candidate was direct — the business took precedence over the city at the time. Will that happen again?
“Number one, I’m not going to be developing any property ever again, personally,” Ward said.
“I don’t think that type of a situation is ever going to present itself again. I may be working for a company that's involved in a development that's going to develop something that may happen again. I tend to shy away from those.”
Ward stated he was “pretty much a one-man survey crew” now. He does have one person that works for him two days a month.
When asked if he was doing any work right now, he could only think of one.
“Only one small one in the city, and that's the project for Terry Duman,” he said. “Just as you're leaving Florence, there's that little piece of ground there that they are proposing a subdivision and I'm doing the survey work for that. And that's a five-unit — lots are small.”
Both Duman and Ward are both elected Port of Siuslaw Commissioners. Should two commissioners be dealing in business?
“I’m the only land surveyor in Florence,” Ward said. “I mean, it’s what I do for a living. I will always be above board in everything I do, I’ve demonstrated that.”
(CLARIFICATION: There is at least one other land surveyor in Florence, Wobbe & Associates Inc. Siuslaw News regrets that it did not confirm before publication.)
Regarding the Duman development and the City of Florence, Ward said he went to the State Ethics Commission again “to make sure the rules hadn’t changed.” They suggested caution.
“Is it okay if I represent something in front of the planning commission and be the presenter on behalf of the developer or the client?” he asked the ethics commission. “They said, ‘You know, that's iffy ground,’ but their recommendation was don't do it. Just because of the shadow it casts. And I said, ‘Okay, no problem.’ And so I won't be presenting anything in front of the Planning Commission or the council on behalf of any client.”
The work with Duman also brought up questions of a “Good Ol’ Boy” system in Florence, an accusation that was made earlier this year after Florence Mayor Joe Henry announced Ward as the “conservative” choice in the mayoral election. Soon after, questions began to rise about the often homogenous nature of the Florence City Council, as well as the Port of Siuslaw.
“I have to laugh about the ‘good old boy’ stuff. Because, you know, I don't consider myself a good old boy, other than my age,” Ward said. “And you know, the average age of Florence is 61. Yeah, I guess we're the majority, over half of the population are good old people.”
One question posed was the amount of elected seats individuals have. For instance, Ward and Bill Meyer both sit on the Port of Siuslaw Commission and the Florence City Council. Should two people be sitting on four seats, therefore denying others an opportunity to represent?
“It's not new to Florence to have somebody serve on the port commission and on the council at the same time,” Ward said.
This led to a conversation about the age diversity on the council. While Ward said a younger generation does need to get involved with city government, he said he would listen to the community.
“I support our entire community,” Ward said. “And I'm interested in the opinions of everybody, whether or not I agree with everybody. But I want to hear what people have to say. And I will always listen in a positive environment and create a positive environment for those people to talk — as long as they play by the rules.”
Ward has limits to what he will tolerate, bringing up past incidences of people in public comment who were viewed as overly combative.
“If you come in and you start attacking a councilor during the council meeting, you're not going to be talking anymore,” he said.
Which goes back to one of his core messages as a candidate.
“It's okay to attack an issue. It's not okay to attack a person,” Ward said.
Florence’s second mayoral candidate, Joshua Greene, will give his account of his history on the Florence City Council in Part II. Look for it online on Oct. 20 or read it in the paper on Oct. 26.