Complaint against Estacada councilor alleges conflict of interest
The Oregon Government Ethics Commission is reviewing a complaint against Estacada City Councilor Justin Gates filed by Estacada City Council President Katy Dunsmuir.
The complaint focuses on a $30,000 grant to Cascade Utilities that was awarded during an Urban Renewal Board meeting on Tuesday, July 14, and alleges a conflict of interest. Gates is the business development manager at Mastertech, which shares owners with Cascade Utilities but is a separate company.
A representative from the Oregon Government Ethics Commission confirmed that the complaint was in preliminary review but declined to share further information, citing confidentiality. The commission will discuss the complaint during a meeting on Friday, Sept. 18.
"If I represent Trump steak and someone representing Trump whiskey came to a board I was serving on asking for assistance, it would be inappropriate for me, a representative of Trump steak to participate in that discussion, even if they are two different companies," Dunsmuir said. "The person at the top of the chain is my bread and butter."
Gates said he does not believe he had a conflict of interest to disclose, nor does he consider the complaint reasonable.
"I have always promoted the bettering of downtown (through) the Urban Renewal Agency while following all goals and policies of the agency. I have supported all projects that have come with staff recommendation of approval. This project and my approval for it is no different from any other project that have come before the Urban Renewal Agency. The awarding of the project was unanimously approved by the board," he said. "I am disappointed that Councilor Dunsmuir did not approach me to discuss this if she felt there was an issue."
Scott Crosby of Cascade Utilities noted that Gates is not involved with any of the company's real estate projects and had not participated in any meetings pertaining to the 301 S.W. Highway 224 development, which received the grant.
"He had no personal gain from it. We hadn't talked to him about it," Crosby said. "He had zero involvement in the project."
During the July 14 meeting, Gates made the motion to approve the grant, which was approved by Dunsmuir, Councilor KC Spangler and Mayor Sean Drinkwine. Councilor Jerry Tenbush was not in attendance.
The ethics complaint cites ORS 244.120, which requires public officials to publicly announce potential conflicts of interest and prohibits officials from voting or participating in any discussion or debate in the event of an actual conflict, and ORS 244.040, which prohibits public officials from using or attempting to use their position to acquire financial gain or avoidance of financial detriment for themselves, a relative or member of their household, or any business with which they, a relative or member of their household is associated, if it would not otherwise be available to them.
Council deliberates funding
The grant awarded to Cascade Utilities will support exterior improvements at 301 S.W. Highway 224, the building that houses Subway, the Estacada Liquor Store, Betty Viveiros CPA, CBDlish and Timber Town Fitness. Work, which is already underway, includes replacing siding and installing new awnings.
"I can't say, 'if you guys don't award us the $30,000, we're not going to do this.' We're kind of committed to it," said Crosby. "But where I hope you guys understand is it's a very expensive project, and we're not getting any revenue from it. We're just spending money to make our town prettier, and updated. Of course it adds value to the property as well, but we're not planning on selling this building anytime soon so it's not about that."
Dunsmuir said that she is supportive of the project but was hesitant to award a significant portion of the agency's $75,000 budget for large grants during the first month of the fiscal year.
"I do believe that this is going to be an important project for our community. It's the first building that you see after Hitchin' Post driving into town. I think it's going to be beautiful, and I think it's going to have a real impact," she said. "It would be a really great thing to give them some money, not necessarily because they need it but because I do believe in the project. But maybe not half of our budget this year. . .We wouldn't be able to give someone else $30,000 and still have half leftover."
Gates said he was "100% ok with it."
"I think that's a huge building, I think it's a great project and I think it's well worth the money," he said.
Dunsmuir asked if Gates believed it was "worth more than one third of our entire annual budget in the first month," and he replied "100%."
Dunsmuir pointed out that Cascade Utilities plans to complete the project with or without the funding.
"They're obviously asking for the money for a reason, with COVID and all that kind of stuff," Gates responded. "This is a no-brainer for me."
Dunsmuir stated several facts about the grant to ensure that the board of directors was on the same page.
"We're going to spend one third of our annual budget, in the first month of our fiscal year, to a project that still has value, I'm not discounting that, but we're going to give that much, to a project that's going to happen anyway, that only meets two out of our nine criteria," Dunsmuir said. "I just wanted to understand that that's where everybody else is coming from."
"Katy, we've heard you. You're just repeating yourself," Gates replied.
Estacada Economic Development Manager and Urban Renewal Project Manager Matt Lorenzen noted that the grant could be a way to show a spirit of partnership.
"We want to convey to property owners that we are willing to invest to beautify the town and make it a better environment for people to visit, do business in and move their business to or start their business, and we want to invest with them," he said. "I do think it's definitely valid and worthy of a moment of pause to say, 'Well, gosh, this project probably would have happened without us.' I think it should also be a factor in our decision making what message we're sending to a property owner. Are we willing to co-invest and be true partners to beautify the business districts?"
Spangler noted that the building's tenants will also benefit from the upgrades, and Drinkwine said he believes the project is a worthy investment.
"I think it follows our whole perspective of what we actually looked at when we talked about making our city," he added. "It's the first thing you see coming in. It houses several businesses, so it falls, in my opinion, in line with what we were talking about when we decided to do this grant program."
Dunsmuir emphasized that she is supportive of the work.
"I do believe in this project. I don't want anyone to think that I don't," she said. "I believe that this money is also reserved for places like Hillockburn Farm, who came to us last year and said without this program I would not be able to do business in our city. And I guess that's who I'm hoping to see an application from next, is someone like that."
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