When the St. Helens City Council met in executive session with the expressed purpose to discuss real property transactions with consultants last week, the resulting conversation raised questions about whether the meeting violated state law.
On Tuesday, May 21, the St. Helens City Council met in closed session at the Portland office of Maul Foster Alongi, an environmental engineering and consulting firm the city of St. Helens contracts for environmental and engineering work. In this case, the city met with the firm and other officials to discuss efforts to repurpose its secondary wastewater lagoon for use as a solid waste landfill
The city has been pursuing the idea of repurposing its secondary wastewater lagoon as a solid waste landfill since 2017, and has recently received funding to help pay for a project feasibility study. The concept is to fill the lagoon with dredge spoils from a Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup project, which could generate significant revenue for the city. Efforts to move forward with the study, which will determine if it's technically possible to establish a landfill, are expected to start next month.
An advance media notification indicated the council would meet to discuss real property transactions. Following the meeting, however, Councilor Steve Topaz said the council's discussions had nothing to do with real property transactions.
State law identifies a limited number of situations when a governing body can enter into an executive session. Governing bodies must announce the general reason for the closed session and stick to that topic. If the body veers from that topic during a closed meeting, it is a violation of state law.
Additionally, the law requires that executive sessions to be held within the geographic boundaries of the governing body's jurisdiction.
A copy of the meeting's agenda, on Maul Foster Alongi letterhead, outlines discussion points about the lagoon project updates, market projections, redevelopment, visioning and governance — but not the lease or sale of any land.
Walsh, however, defended the executive session, which he said qualified as a discussion about real property related to the lagoon, management of potential risks if the lagoon is re-purposed into a landfill, and governance components all related to the project. He also noted that it made the most sense to hold the meeting in Portland for financial reasons, since multiple state and government officials would be attending.
Walsh added that along with real property transactions, the session was held to confer with legal counsel about the property, though the agenda did not mention holding a closed meeting under the attorney-client privilege exemption.
Council President Doug Morten said the meeting felt similar to attending a workshop during a convention like League of Oregon Cities, where information is distributed about an ongoing project, but no decisions were made.
When asked whether or not the meeting aligned with the state statute for real property transactions, Morten said he unsure and deferred to Walsh.
"I don't know. Potentially there could be property transactions, but that was not discussed at length at all," Morten said, adding that he was hesitant to divulge specific details about the meeting discussions.
Kate Kondayen, deputy communications director for Gov. Kate Brown's office, described the meeting in an email as a governance workshop to "discuss potential redevelopment of the city's central waterfront." Representatives from the Governor's Regional Solutions Team, Department of Environmental Quality, Department of State Lands, and Business Oregon, were all at the meeting, which was convened by Maul Foster Along on behalf of St. Helens, Kondayen said. The city's legal counsel, as well as and environmental attorney and others, were also at the meeting Walsh noted.
Walsh described the meeting as "more of an informational education workshop," but indicated that an executive session was announced because a quorum of councilors would be present and they would be conducting business, not attending a social event.
When asked why discussion about the city's lagoon wasn't held publicly or as a work session, Walsh noted that a portion of a funding contract with Department of State Lands will help pay for public outreach further down the road.
"There will be a very robust public engagement piece of this," Walsh said, although he did not note when that would begin.
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