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Commission fields complaints of possible violations against City Council members

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission recently reviewed two separate complaints of possible ethics violations in St. Helens concerning publicly elected local officials.

In August, the ethics commission, which oversees and investigates allegations of misconduct by publicly elected officials and governing bodies, received a six-page complaint leveled against City Councilor Steve Topaz that was filed by the city's finance director, Matt Brown. The ethics commission also received a single-page complaint filed by Topaz against the St. Helens City Council for possible meetings law violations.

In both situations, the commission issued letters of no action.

The ethics commission received Brown's six-page complaint on Thursday, Aug. 15. In the complaint letter, Brown raised concerns that Topaz had violated the city's code of ethics during his first six months by failing to "support a workplace atmosphere that encourages employee's pride in their work," and outlined numerous instances to explain his concerns.

Brown's letter was originally drafted as a letter to the St. Helens City Council on July 17, the record indicates.

BrownBrown outlined three separate situations where he felt Topaz had violated ethical guidelines set out by the city's code of ethics. Brown noted in one instance that Topaz "insinuated that I, as Finance Director for the City of St. Helens, have purposefully avoided his questions," in an opinion letter published in the Spotlight newspaper. Brown also noted that Topaz had created a hostile work environment by publicly stating he had not been provided with financial information about the city's recreation program and also berated a city employee in a public meeting.

The complaint letter alleged situations where Brown said Topaz has discussed being compensated by the city for impacts on Topaz's property by a public's works project in the mid-2000s, has made false statements in public meetings, has made attempts to meddle in city departments, and leaked privileged information from executive session meetings, the document states.

After reviewing the complaint, the ethics commission issued a letter of no action and stated that it "does not have jurisdiction over the general behavior and conduct of an elected official with the exception of taking actions on their official capacity." The letter added that the commission may have grounds to pursue claims that Topaz is trying to benefit financially for his personal residence, but reported insufficient details had been provided in the original complaint. Brown could submit a secondary filing to provide more detail, the letter notes.

Just days later, on April 20, Topaz and his lawyer, Phil Griffin of the Scappoose practice Clarke Griffin, filed a letter of complaint against the city of St. Helens and the City Council alleging violations of public meetings law when it conducted an executive session meeting at the office of a private firm in Portland in May.

TopazThe complaint indicated that the City Council met in closed session at the Portland office of Maul Foster Alongi and the meeting was "announced to be a discussion of 'real estate transactions,' but the meeting has nothing to do with real estate transactions, but instead the City board met with the environmental firm and other officials to discuss effort(s) to repurpose the St. Helen's (SIC) secondary wastewater lagoon for use as a solid waste landfill," the complaint notes.

Additionally, the complaint asserts that the meeting was held in the city of Portland, outside of the geographical boundaries of the city of St. Helens, and is hence a violation of public meetings law.

The ethics commission also issued a letter of no action after reviewing the complaint, stating that a provided supporting document indicated the meeting was "convened by a private firm and not by the St. Helens City Council," and no further action would be taken.

The executive session in question was publicly noticed by the city of St. Helens as an executive session meeting of the council to be held on May 21 at the offices of the environmental consulting firm, Maul Foster Alongi, and has been acknowledged by city staff and other council members as a meeting of the City Council.

A source at the ethics commission said that while no action was taken based on information provided with the initial complaint, the commission could again review the City Council's actions upon receipt of more clarifying information.

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