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'The memo that I was elected to represent the citizens of St. Helens, and not as a message carrier for city staff, seems to have not been circulated'

PMG FILE PHOTO - Steve Topaz, right, when he was sworn in to office by St. Helens City Council Municipal Judge Amy Lindgren. Topaz holds Position 3 on the St. Helens City Council. From the other side of the bench

It has been a year since I was elected to the St. Helens City Council and a short progress report seems to be in order.

In September I attended the annual League of Oregon Cities meeting. This event brings Oregon cities, businesses and government departments together for demonstrations of available services, teaching sessions and general oversite lectures.

A session I attended gave recommendations about how to bring a newly elected councilor onto a council. In my notes, I outline nine items that should occur in that regard. Here, in St. Helens, none were done. It has been made clear that I am not part of the team.

This is not unexpected and was even predicted by some community members after I was elected. Questions about ongoing projects that were raised before I was elected still go unanswered. Some city staff members act somewhat uncomfortable when I am present. I find that being cut off when asking questions of some of the citizens by the mayor is acceptable by the other members of the council, and being told by some members of staff what I should say is just the way it works in St. Helens. 

The memo that I was elected to represent the citizens of St. Helens, and not as a message carrier for city staff, seems to have not been circulated.

With that as an opening, I would like to indicate the four main problems I have with staff and the council's agenda.

I have design and philosophy problems with the waterfront project, the waste filling of the lagoon, the connector project and the marijuana land sale.

I find that trying to find a solution to the Gable Road/Highway 30 connection is met with fear of failure. This problem's solution will require the involvement of state, federal, city and county government, as well as buy-in from the railroad and Oregon Department of Transportation. As I found at the League of Oregon Cities meeting, this type of problem is limiting many cities in this state and will in fact require the Legislature to solve. Not an easy task, but by not starting the process of finding a solution the problem will never be solved.

The waterfront design that was put together by visiting architects and the community — the one where there were businesses, access to the river and limited condos — has since been replaced by a design for a hotel, many condos, a limited view of the river and no access directly to the river. A phrase used that accompanies this presented plan is that it is just a "framework." Basically, the plan can be changed in any way deemed necessary with no overall long-term plan in place.

The lagoon project is a large collection of unspoken problems. The big lure is that the city of Portland would pay to put Superfund harbor waste in the lagoon for about $90 million. This would require the city to replace the sewer plant for about $70 million and absorb other additional costs, such as removal of the plastic liner from the cooling pond and building barge unloading and loading terminals, for a total estimated cost to the city on the order of $20 million.

This does not seem like a reasonable deal. The spoken end point is that there will be 49 acres of ground to build on when it is finished. The problem, which is showing up in Portland, is that these covered waste dumps are fenced to exclude people — therefore no useable ground.

The marijuana problem starts when the city leases some of the former Boise pulp and paper mill property to a landowner who then rents this ground to a grower: no money down, no signed contracts, no dates for milestones. 

When the city is required to have an appraisal, and the appraisal comes in lower that the offered price, the city lowers the sales price. The value of the property was set by the buyer, but the past City Council lowers the price that it would sell the property for — not good business.

When there was a decision to sell the property, no closing date was set and there was no money down, even as the property is producing marijuana — the notice of the first harvest was made at the council meeting at which I was sworn in at in January.

A back calculation — seeding, building and remodeling — tells me this operation had been under way for almost a year.

The first public description indicates that after 10 months the city was to be receiving rent payments. That would have been last December. The fact that the sales documents and final payments have not been completed shows that the city of St. Helens is still the owner of a marijuana facility, which is against federal and state law.

The absence of no legal property description at the county might be a violation on surplus property sale by excluding other possible buyers. Business Oregon, the state's economic development arm, has indicated that if the marijuana grow facility goes on the industrial site it will not help the city of St. Helens promote this property.

That is the business side of this facility, now the social side.

The evidence about the deadly harm that marijuana produces through vaping and reality modification in many areas, on our highways, in the workplace and in our schools, should give cause to the City Council to not allow this type of operation in our community. Instead, the majority of the council voted to give the city administrator the power to sign the sales agreement without even having seen the complete and final document. This action indicates clearly to the community that following the law is not necessary, the mental and physical health of our students is not important, and the same with the physical safety in the community.

Columbia County has the one of the highest drug problems in the state, very high student dropout problems, mental health problems, homeless problems, suicide problems and the majority of the City Council is more interested in trying to make money.

I have a feeling that my learning curve to connect smoothly with the old City Council is going to have some bumps in it. I have had several conversations with members of our community with the expectation that the crazies would come out. I have been surprised how accurately observant our community is, and how similar the endpoint is, with the main difference in opinions being how to get there. 

Our biggest problem that I see from behind the bench is the fear of admitting that we have a problem, or problems, depending on the day.

Steve Topaz

St. Helens


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