LA GRANDE — Housing and homelessness are top issues for the city of La Grande, but the city lacks the money to provide an answer. 

La Grande city councilors, the mayor, city manager and department directors spent two days in public meetings discussing their plans for the coming year and wrapped up the annual retreat Tuesday night.

"We talk about things in the community," Mayor Steve Clements said. "Things that are important and things that need attention and effort on the city's part." 

Clements.jpg

Clements

Clements said the city will complete some of the projects in the short term, some will take longer and some are a continuation of issues the city has been addressing over several years. 

The topics came from the city council. Each councilor submitted five projects or ideas based on the city's vision statement and goals. The first day of the retreat focused on general city projects and concerns such as housing and communication. According to the retreat's agenda, the city will begin work on the Comprehensive Housing Strategic Plan, a five-year outline that must be adopted by 2023 to comply with House Bill 2003. The housing plan also will address the issue of homelessness in La Grande. 

Clements during the December 2019 hearing on whether to allow the Union County Warming Station to open said he wanted the city to take a more active role in addressing homelessness. But after the council's retreat, Clements said the city lacks money and resources to pursue a solution. 

"However, my personal goal, and what I encouraged other councilors to focus on at this time, is to pursue knowledge and continue to learn about what homelessness means," the mayor said. "Homelessness is a huge concept I am still learning about. No amount of money from any level of government can solve the problem."

The council also discussed using text messages to community to the public. 

"Do people want information pushed to them, or do they want to pull information for themselves?" Clements asked. "I think it is a combination of both, and we are looking into the option of text messages and updating the website to spread information." 

Other topics included the city's services and programs, infrastructure improvements, the budget, staffing and partnerships. 

The La Grande City Council also sits as the Urban Renewal Agency, and the second day of the retreat focused on economic development. 

The council plans to continue its call for urban renewal projects, which provides funding to existing and potential businesses that further the development goals. One proposal called for an agency-initiated funding program in which the council selects a downtown property for improvement and offers $100,000 toward the project. The council also discussed allowing residents to serve on the Urban Renewal Agency.

Councilors did not vote on any proposals during the retreat but will decide the priorities at a public meeting in February or March.

"Everything that was discussed could go to council meetings or we have another work session about it," Clements said. "Having a planning session like this allows us to spend time learning about things that might come up at council meetings and the opportunity to talk fully about a topic in a public meeting." 

While both days of the retreat took place in council chambers and were open to the public, the city did not allow public comment to give councilors the chance to fully discuss issues. 

Four seats, including the mayor's, are up for re-election at the end of 2020. Despite this, Clements said he does not feel any councilors are interested in slowing down or easing up on their responsibilities. 

"The retreat was fun, interesting and a learning experience," Clements said, "and in some ways a bonding experience. Not one person was quiet. They were all engaged and spoke about their priorities and listened to each other. This council is by no means a lame duck. They are all there for their communities."

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