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State launches formal investigation on allegation St. Helens city officials abused closed meeting provisions

PMG FILE PHOTO - The Oregon Government Ethics Commission is investigating the St. Helens City Council to determine if councilors and the mayor violated Oregon Public Meetings Law when they held an executive session to discuss a lagoon repurposing project at a consultants office in Portland. Following a preliminary review, the state ethics commission has launched a formal probe to determine if St. Helens city councilors and the mayor violated Oregon law when they hosted a closed meeting to discuss a lagoon repurposing project at the offices of a consulting firm in Portland.

In August, St. Helens City Councilor Steve Topaz, who is also a subject of the formal investigation, filed a complaint with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission alleging Mayor Rick Scholl and Councilors Doug Morten, Keith Locke and Ginny Carlson violated the executive session provision of Oregon public meetings law when they hosted the May 21 executive session meeting at the Portland offices of Maul Foster Alongi, a city-contracted environmental engineering and consulting firm.

The city advertised the closed meeting for the purposes of discussing real property transactions and to consult with legal counsel.

Instead, the city councilors, city staffers and consultants with Maul Foster Alongi, as well as members of the Governor's Office, the Environmental Protection Agency and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, discussed how the city could repurpose its wastewater lagoon to store waste dredge from the Portland Harbor EPA superfund site, a series of public records show.

Discussions also revolved around the ideal location of the lagoon and how a public information campaign could be implemented to sell the proposal to the general public, public records indicate.

"Based on the information available during this preliminary review, it appears that matters discussed in the executive session may not have been authorized under either of these statutory citations," ethics agency reports state.

The city has been discussing a wastewater lagoon repurposing project since 2017.

Oregon Public Meetings law identifies a limited number of situations in which a public body can enter 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.

The Spotlight first reported on the Portland meeting on May 31, in the story "Closed St. Helens meeting, in Portland, raises questions," which also factored in the ethics commission's decision to formally investigate. Source documents associated with this story can be accessed on the Spotlight's website.

(Reports on individual council members and city mayor: Doug MortenKeith LockeGinny CarlsonSteve TopazRick Scholl)

Lagoon repurposing talks

After receiving Topaz's complaint, an investigator with the ethics agency, which oversees and investigates allegations of misconduct by elected officials and governing bodies, conducted a preliminary review of his allegations. The findings were compiled in a series of reports obtained by the Spotlight through a public records request following the Oct. 3 meeting of the ethics commission, when it voted to open the investigation.

The preliminary investigation reports indicate the city and other governmental agencies "have been meeting in a series of workshops with the purpose of working toward what may eventually become a real property transaction.

It does not appear, however, that negotiations for the real property transaction are currently taking place," the preliminary report states.

While discussions may have centered around real property, "the City Council was not actually conducting deliberations with someone designated to negotiate a real property transaction for the city," and the meeting "appears to have been an informal workshop to educate the Councilors on various aspects of the possible project, such as a public relations campaign or governance model," the reports continue.

Scholl also announced the session under a statue that allows closed meetings to discuss pending litigation, but there is no apparent current or pending litigation involving this property or the proposed project, the reports state.

When the ethics commission requested information about the May meeting, participants also indicated they talked about programs related to lagoon security, which would be allowable for executive session under state law. It is unclear if security was discussed, however, and it was not advertised as a reason for holding the closed session, the reports add.

After a preliminary review of the complaint and associated facts was completed, ethics commission staff recommended the commission move to formally investigate.

"There appears to be a substantial objective basis to believe that violation of the executive session provisions of Oregon Public Meetings law may have occurred on May 21, 2019 when the St. Helens City Council met in executive session to discuss matter not authorized by the announced statutory citations," the reports state.

The city of St. Helens released a prepared fact sheet on Thursday, Oct. 3, in advance of the ethics agency's determination, outlining the city's take about what occurred and an explanation for why the city publicly announced the meeting

City assertions

St. Helens officials, elected and administrative, have stood behind the fact that no decisions were made during the meeting, and information provided to the city in September by the state ethics agency indicates the "training session/educational workshop that occurred on May 21, 2019 likely should not have been noticed as an executive session," and workshops do not require the public to be notified.

An investigator with the ethics agency by email, however, wrote that determinations about public notification for work sessions are outside the purview of the commission, a contradiction of the city's assertion.

Scholl has also stood behind the fact that the meeting was informational in nature and the council made no decisions in closed setting.

"It's funny how, I mean, in people's eyes they already think there's something going on, but there was nothing suspicious about it," he added referring to the executive session meeting. "It was just informative."

Topaz said he filed the complaint to make it publicly known that the City Council should not have conducted the closed session meeting the way it did.

"Well, the big thing we wanted to do was bring it to the public that they (the City Council) screwed up," Topaz said. "By going there (to the ethics commission) we've done that."

Topaz also cited concerns about the meeting being held outside of the geographic boundaries of the city of St. Helens, which state public meetings law indicates is not allowed. The ethics commission did not make any determinations along those lines, however, as questions about public meeting venues is beyond the agency's scope.

When the investigation is complete, the ethics commissions is expected to decide sanctions, which can range from no action to a letter of reprimand and fines.

Investigations are limited to 180 days and settlement negotiations can also be entered at any time, an ethics commission spokesperson confirmed.

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