City council rejects motion to explore term limits for neighborhood association leaders

Salem city councilors voted against a motion to explore term limits for neighborhood association chairs and co-chairs on Monday after group leaders cautioned against the idea.

Supporters of the measure said at a council meeting that limits would encourage new leadership and boost engagement, while those opposed said the measure was premature or would drive away participants.

On Wednesday, Councilor Julie Hoy, who presented the motion, told Salem Reporter that despite the idea getting voted down, she doesn’t see it as a failure. 

“I’ve heard more conversations about neighborhood associations in the past week than I ever have before,” Hoy said.

The motion sought to direct city staff to prepare a code amendment limiting consecutive terms for chair and vice-chair, or equivalent neighborhood association board positions. If passed, the code amendment would have been brought to a vote at a later date.

The motion failed, with three votes in favor: Hoy, Deanna Gwyn and Jose Gonzalez, and the other six opposed: Virginia Stapleton, Linda Nishioka, Trevor Phillips, Vanessa Nordyke, Micki Varney and Mayor Chris Hoy.

Hoy is a longtime Salem resident and owner of Geppetto’s, an Italian restaurant on Lancaster Drive Northeast. She was elected to city council in November, and said she had never attended a neighborhood association before joining the council.

“I really had a fresh perspective. I also came in as the Lansing Neighborhood Association was in the process of dissolving for lack of participation and engagement,” she told Salem Reporter. 

The Lansing Neighborhood Association dissolved last year, and its remaining members were absorbed into the North Lancaster Neighborhood Association, or NOLA. 

“I am concerned that the East Lancaster Neighborhood Association, ELNA, might be headed for the same fate if recruitment and greater engagement aren’t fostered now, immediately,” Hoy said.

Neighborhood associations help citizens participate in community improvement projects by bringing residents, business owners and city officials together. In 1972, Salem became the first city in the state, and one of the first in the country, to organize neighborhood associations.

Hoy said term limits would encourage neighborhood associations to mentor new members for leadership positions.

“I have great respect for institutional knowledge, and the dedication of some of these folks over literally decades of time,” she said. “Any healthy board has regular turnover, and a great succession plan. And I don’t see that. That’s where my concern comes from.”

Before the vote, nine members of various neighborhood associations spoke against the motion, including the East Lancaster Neighborhood Association and North Lancaster Neighborhood Association, both in Hoy’s ward.

“It’s my personal opinion that not so many people are clamoring to be volunteers in neighborhood associations,” said Deanna Garcia, chair of North Lancaster Neighborhood Association. 

Garcia said that Hoy had encouraged her to stay on as chair when she wanted to step down, so the motion came as a surprise.

Susann Kaltwasser, co-chair of East Lancaster, said she has been involved with the neighborhood board for 34 years. She said many of the people involved in the associations today have made similar time commitments.

Kaltwasser said that when she started, Salem’s neighborhood associations had seven staff members focused on development and city collaboration. Now, there’s one.

“We welcome the city’s support, and would like to have even more support,” she said. “It would be wonderful to return back to some of the levels that we have appreciated in the past.”

During the meeting, Hoy said she believes NOLA is sustainable, but that she wants ELNA to teach new recruits that institutional knowledge.

“ELNA is less approachable,” Hoy told Salem Reporter. “And I went to the city and said how can we help to fix this? Because if neighbors don’t feel like coming to a meeting is going to add anything or make a difference, they don’t come.”

On Thursday, Kaltwasser told Salem Reporter that she appreciates the work of the city, but wants it to provide more resources to its few liaisons. She said neighborhood association chairs have been discussing how to better train and mentor new leadership.

“We feel really strongly that we’re kind of being given a tremendous amount of responsibilities by the city and the community, but not getting the kind of support that we need,” Kaltwasser said.

“This latest thing on the term limits was a real insult to a lot of people that have been working very very hard,” she said. “So I think what we’re going to be seeing is a stronger, more cohesive push to the city to up the funding.”

Evan West, a board member of the South Central Association of Neighbors, said that its bylaws once limited terms to six years, but the rule was rescinded due to a lack of candidates.

He asked that the council postpone considering term limits until the impact of current outreach efforts, including citywide advertising for new recruits, is better understood. 

Several commenters at the meeting said that the currently existing election process is sufficient for providing opportunities for new members.

“The more I heard, the more I thought, maybe this is not the right motion,” Hoy said, but added that the motion was just a way to approach the possibility of term limits. “It really got people fired up.”

Before the vote, several councilors who voted in opposition, including Vanessa Nordyke, Virginia Stapleton and Micki Varney, commented on the motion, saying that it was well-intentioned, but premature without further conversations with the associations and knowing the results of current outreach.

Councilor Gonzalez, who voted in favor, said that an important part of community leadership is considering who will come next.

Mayor Chris Hoy, no relation to Julie Hoy, voted against the measure. He compared it to the city’s relationship to the state, where the council tends to rebel against losing authority.

“We’re independently elected, we’re accountable to our voters and we can make our own decisions,” he said.

He said that similarly, neighborhoods are their own entities, and that elections serve as built in term limits.

Julie Hoy told Salem Reporter she’s glad the motion has brought up difficult conversations with neighborhood associations.

“I want to see what continues to grow from this moment, where the soil’s been turned a little bit,” she said. 

“This is not personal. This is about the people, and I’ve learned more about neighborhood associations and how they serve the people,” Hoy said. “It’s just really important to foster that relationship between government and business and families to hopefully strive to make things better for everyone and to be inclusive and diverse.”

This story has been updated to include additional comments from Susann Kaltwasser, co-chair of East Lancaster Neighbborhood Association.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.