Port official represents polluters
Waldron will abstain from voting to avoida conflict of interest
Port of Portland Commission President Jay Waldron says he has recused himself from all votes involving the cleanup of the lower Willamette River because he is serving as counsel for two businesses believed to be responsible for polluting the river.
Waldron, an environmental attorney for Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt, is representing NW Natural and Time Oil Co. on matters related to the government-mandated Superfund cleanup of the Portland harbor.
Both firms have been named by the federal Environmental Protection Agency as major contributors to the pollution of the harbor, listed as a Superfund site in December 2000.
The port is the largest property owner within the harbor and is leading the effort to clean up the river. Some observers, including environmentalists and attorneys familiar with the harbor Superfund process, question how Waldron can represent both the public interest and his clients, given that such cleanups are notorious for getting bogged down with expensive and protracted legal battles.
David Paul, an environmental attorney for the Portland law firm Paul & Sugerman, said of Waldron: 'If he's counsel of record, he has a duty to zealously represent the interests of his client. And if he's a port commissioner, he has a responsibility to be an impartial decision-maker. I don't see how those two work together.'
State ethics laws require public officials such as Waldron to disclose publicly all potential conflicts of interest.
Waldron has twice sat out commission votes over hiring environmental consultants for the harbor cleanup, in December 2000 and again last week. Both times he disclosed his potential conflict.
In an interview last week, Waldron said he will not vote on any Superfund matters or take part in proprietary discussions with port staff and commissioners working on the cleanup.
Waldron said there is no conflict of interest because his clients and the port are cooperating. The port and nine businesses Ñ including Time Oil and NW Natural Ñ have signed legal agreements to fund an investigation into the river's pollution.
'We're on the same side,' Waldron said. Still, he said, 'to avoid even an appearance of impropriety,' he will continue to sit out all votes and proprietary discussions about the cleanup.
Port public affairs manager Katy Brooks explained: 'Whether there is really a conflict of interest or not, he just wants to keep it clean. Jay is a smart guy, and we are a public agency. He's got a business to represent. He's been very careful to keep (his roles) separate.'
Conflicts common at the port
Potential conflicts of interest are nothing new for Portland's nine-member port commission.
'At virtually every commission meeting since 1979, there has invariably been someone on the commission who has had some business Ñ either with or against the port,' Waldron said. 'That's because these are people who are involved in the community.'
Waldron said he plans to continue being careful. 'If there comes a point where there is an issue, I will address it. I will do what the right thing is. É I strongly believe I'm on the high ground here.'
But others point out that Waldron's dual position on the harbor issue is much more than a one-meeting event. The harbor cleanup could last a decade or more and cost unknown millions. The port and Waldron's clients may be getting along for now, but that could change later, when cleanup costs become clearer.
'It could get nasty when the allocation decisions are being made,' one attorney said privately. 'There's a pie of money that's going to need to be divvied up at some point. It may be that the less Time Oil pays, the more the port will have to pay.'
L. Patrick Hearn, executive director of the Oregon Government Standards and Practices Commission, said: 'Fortunately these types of situations don't occur that often. I think most people frankly see the common sense ahead of time and say, 'Hey, this isn't going to work.' So they don't get themselves into the situation to begin with.'
In the meantime, the commission's president will not be contributing to any decisions regarding the harbor effort. Waldron, appointed by Gov. John Kitzhaber last April, has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and is one of Portland's senior environmental attorneys.
Port Executive Director Bill Wyatt doesn't think that Waldron's decision will hurt his performance. 'Harbor cleanup is just one of many enormous things that we have to contend with,' he said. 'I have found Jay to be open and accessible and very careful not to expose us or him to any conflict of interest.'