Oregon City Mayor Dan Holladay made a dramatic exit after Clackamas County’s Regional Wastewater Treatment Capacity Advisory Committee decided to abandon Janicki Bioenergy’s waste processing technology that promised to be tens of millions of dollars cheaper than the committee’s preferred option.

Holladay and his counterpart from Gladstone had accused the county of setting up “political theater,” apparently by creating a charade of a committee to rubber-stamp the county’s preferred technology.

“From day one, this was going to be digesters,” Holladay said of the county’s other, preferred technology before walking out of the June 30 meeting.

Milwaukie City Councilor Karin Power, who chairs the regional wastewater committee that voted 5-2 in favor of anaerobic digesters, said that Janicki Bioenergy’s technology wasn’t convincing the majority of the committee members of its efficacy or its potential costs in case of failure.

“The way that Janicki submitted their proposal to this committee was a bit unusual to say the least,” Power said. “We’ve spent as much time as we could vetting it clearly.”

Holladay sees a pattern of county officials ignoring Oregon City’s concerns, citing the controversial decision to allow the Clackamas County Service District #1 (CCSD#1) to use the Tri-City Service District wastewater treatment plant site for liquids handling.

Although Oregon City commissioners did not support this decision, county chairwoman Lynn Peterson signed an intergovernmental agreement in 2009 on behalf of all three organizations to authorize the Tri-City plant expansion. County officials insist the deal was fair, because the terms of the agreement between the districts obligated CCSD#1 to make a lump sum payment of $4 million and pay a proportionate share of future annual operation and maintenance costs at the Tri-City plant.

Sara VanTassel, president of Janicki Bioenergy, submitted a formal withdrawal letter to the committee after its previous meeting, when critics of the technology blasted the proposal.

“To date, there have been numerous and continuous erroneous statements made about our technology and our company, including most recently during the May 26 meeting. It is unnecessary and unproductive to point out all of the inaccuracies,” VanTassel wrote. “Should the committee decide to reconsider our technology in the future utilizing a process with objective evaluation measures and testimony, we would welcome the opportunity to re-engage.”

After the 5-2 vote, Holladay said he had enough, not only of the regional committee, but also of the Tri-City committee (composed of elected officials from OC, Gladstone and West Linn) that also makes sewage-related recommendations to county commissioners.

“I’ve had all the fun I’m willing to have,” Holladay said as he walked out of the room.

“So does that mean you’re no longer participating in Tri-City?” asked Brenda Perry, West Linn City Council’s representative on the board.

“Yes,” was Holladay’s response.

Soon after Holladay left, Gladstone’s representative also exited the meeting prematurely.

“I don’t see a reason for Gladstone to continue to participate here, and I think we are going to depart,” said Gladstone City Councilor Steve Johnson.

Johnson said that he would “do the courtesy” of making a formal motion to adjourn the meeting. However, Johnson’s request died for a lack of a second, and the meeting continued for another 15 minutes or so.

“Gladstone has all the sewage processing capacity it will ever need, and the people of Gladstone have paid their fair share,” Johnson said. “So why in the world should we be required to pay for a sewer plant for Happy Valley growth?”

‘Critical process’ being delayed?

Prior to the abrupt exits, Perry said she was disappointed that Gladstone and Oregon City seemed intent on leaving the table permanently. She had asked Holladay and Johnson to reconsider.

“It’s going to be very important that we all participate to make sure that the rates and the costs and everything else are apportioned fairly,” she said. “If you are not going to participate in this then you’re going to end up just paying what’s decided by others.”

Holladay and Johnson suggested that if they don’t participate in the committee, then the committee will lack a quorum of two-thirds of the three cities. When John Ludlow, county commission board chairman, said that will mean that Clackamas County makes all the decisions on behalf of the cities, Holladay said that happens already anyway.

“This was predetermined from the beginning, and the county doesn’t listen to cities,” Holladay said before he left the room. “Oregon City will decline to participate in this process any longer and, in fact, will do whatever we need to do to protect our ratepayers, which may include, you know, a multiyear lawsuit, or whatever the case might be.”

Holladay said he expected Oregon City to prevail in the case, given that the county’s recent lawsuit against the city failed to stop right-of-way fees.

“And, so far, the county doesn’t have a great track record suing Oregon City, so I’m pretty confident that we can move forward,” he said.

Ludlow said that it’s actually the cities who should be seen as putting on a political performance.

“If there’s any ‘political theater’ here, you guys are delivering it,” Ludlow said.

Writing the following week to Gladstone and Oregon City officials, Ludlow aimed for political pressure to reconsider each city’s participation on the advisory boards. He said that abruptly stepping away from advisory roles or bringing litigation against the districts would only serve to delay the “critical progress” on the boards.

“I am surprised and saddened by these developments,” Ludlow said. “In recent months, our advisory boards have evaluated at great length the technology options available, in order to recommend the most reliable, cost-effective and safest way to meet our expanding capacity demands while being responsible stewards of ratepayer resources.”

State law (ORS 451) specifies that Clackamas County commissioners could send the merging of the two districts to a vote of the people if they are the governing body for both districts. Ludlow has indicated that he would take the issue of a proposed merger of the two districts to the county commission for review.

“If Clackamas County wants to do this cleanly, then it should look to a vote of the people, but perhaps they are afraid it won’t pass,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to say anything about the court, so don’t quote me on that, but I would say this is already messy, and it could get messier,”

This Wednesday, July 20, both the Gladstone City Council and Oregon City Commission will discuss the issue. Johnson said that he would be willing to continue to be part of the Tri-City advisory committee, but he isn’t sure whether he’ll continue to be part of the regional advisory committee.