Salem city hall (Salem Reporter)

Update 4:55 p.m.: Salem City Council will reopen the vote between Reid Sund and Vanessa Nordyke at its upcoming meeting, Oct. 28.

City Manager Steve Powers released the following statement to Salem Reporter:

"In reviewing the appointment process from Monday, October 21, we recognized an error was made in determining that a majority vote had been reached on the appointment of Vanessa Nordyke to the Ward 7 vacancy. Both the City Charter and Council Rules require a council vacancy appointment be made by a vote of a majority of the council. In this case, that is five votes (5 of 8).

At the October 28, 2019, meeting there will be an item recommending that City Council reopen the vote in order to reach a majority. Council Rules also provide that when there are more than three recommended applicants and no one reaches a majority in the original ballot, the next ballot will only have the two applicants that received the most votes. In this case, that means only Mr. Sund and Ms. Nordyke will appear on the ballot.

We are sorry for this error and the confusion it has caused."

Update: 2:30 p.m.: This article has been updated to include a comment from Vanessa Nordyke.

Sarah Owens sprung up from her rug Monday night, incredulous.

The retired attorney had just watched from her living room — on a small, flat screen television less than a foot off the ground — the Salem City Council appoint a new councilor with four of eight votes.

“I’m going, ‘Since when is four of eight a majority?’” Owens said, remembering how a gust of disbelief pushed her around the room. “I’m getting up, I’m going over to Facebook, I’m complaining to the city.”

The votes went: four for Vanessa Nordyke, an Oregon Department of Justice attorney; three for Reid Sund, director of finance for Salem Health; and one vote for Bonnie Heitsch, a colleague of Nordyke’s who withdrew from consideration the day before.

Salem City Attorney Dan Atchison swore Nordyke in shortly after.

Watching from the living room of their apartment in downtown Salem were two of Salem’s citizen watchdogs - Owens and her partner, Michael Livingston. He is a retired juvenile court judge.

The protocol didn’t sit well with them that night, they later told Salem Reporter, and it still doesn’t days later.

“We looked it up,” Owens said. “Because it would be very odd for a public body to be able to take any action on less than a majority vote. That should have stood out to the three lawyers in the room, even if it didn’t quite stand out to anybody else.”

Owens reached out to the city of Salem over Facebook and emailed Mayor Chuck Bennett outlining city rules.

Council rules stipulate that the council appoint a councilor by a majority of votes. If no applicant receives a majority, additional ballots “shall be taken until one of the applicants receives the required majority,” according to the rules. 

Officially, there’s a distinction between “majority” of votes and “most” — also called a plurality. The text the council uses for its procedures says a “plurality that is not a majority never chooses a proposition or elects anyone to office except by virtue of a special rule previously adopted.”

Atchison alluded to the rules at the beginning of the Monday meeting.

“As soon as one candidate has a majority — which would be five votes — that candidate is then appointed,” he told councilors. “If there’s a tie vote or no one reaches a majority, you’ll keep voting until there is.”

A city spokesperson told Salem Reporter on Thursday that Atchison wouldn’t address Owen’s concerns immediately.

“He’s going to be conferring later with the mayor and city manager (Steve Powers),” said Kathy Ursprung, a city spokesperson.

Nordyke said she would "fully support" a revote.

"I believe it is important to have a fair and transparent appointment process," she said. "The people of Salem deserve a fair and transparent process they can believe in when appointing any city official."

Sund, the runner-up, said that he thinks there should be a re-vote, saying questions about process shouldn't hang over anyone's appointment.

“I’m not in this to try and swing it one way or another. I think the city would do well to have the votes on the record,” he said. “I’m not Vanessa. The vote didn’t go in my favor, but if the tables were turned and it were me who got four votes, I’d say I want you to do this right because I don’t want anything from the rest of this term to be questioned.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.