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CHD attorney says lawsuits still moving forward

Despite summary judgment in favor of commissioners role as CHD trustees, filings keep cases alive


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - Despite a For Sale sign outside the chain-linked 8.3-acre Millard Road property, the fate of the property is still tied up in the court.  The attorney representing plaintiffs in two lawsuits that at their heart allege the Columbia County Board of Commissioners was unlawfully named trustees for the defunct Columbia Health District said the cases are not concluded, despite an apparent decision to the contrary last December.

James Huffman, who is representing former Columbia Health District board members on a pro bono basis, said he anticipates a Feb. 25 pre-trial conference hearing on the summary judgment decision handed down from Columbia Circuit Judge Ted Grove in a letter dated Dec. 28.

Whether the conference meeting would end up keeping the cases filed in January 2012, alive is unknown, Huffman acknowledged. He said he is prepared to appeal any decision not in his client’s favor.

“I’m sure either side is going to appeal, regardless what the decision is. It’s going to be a messy appeal if [the cases are] not decided on the merits,” Huffman said.

In the letter, Grove said he was “granting summary judgment against the plaintiffs and in favor of all defendants and intervenors.” He determined the commissioners were legally acting as trustees for the dissolved district.

At stake is the fate of CHD’s 8.3-acre Millard Road property.

Huffman said the summary judgment letter is the result of a procedural misstep on his part, including late response filings.

“The responses were late, by the strict rule,” Huffman said, adding that he believes the question of how the publicly owned Millard Road property is disposed should outweigh the technicality.

“If something is as important as this, there should be decision on the merits. Not some procedural technicality,” Huffman said.

Defense attorney Brett Mersereau of the Portland law firm Mersereau Shannon LLP said in an email response he believes the case is over and is unaware of any further hearings, and he disputed Huffman’s comments about the case not being decided on its merits.

“The court decided the case on its merits, finding that all actions taken were according to statute,” Mersereau said.

Grove said, however, that he is considering several filings since the summary judgment letter had been sent out.

“[The cases are] under advisement and I’m considering a number of recent responses and further information that I’ve been receiving from the parties,” Grove said.

Huffman and the plaintiffs argue a former CHD board intentionally failed to address the Millard Road property in its dissolution plan as a backdoor effort to transfer the property to the city of St. Helens.

Oregon law specifies that a property controlled by a special district reverts back to the tax jurisdiction where the property exists when that district is dissolved, unless otherwise stated in a dissolution plan.

The Millard Road property had been annexed into the city of St. Helens in 2010, and the city had been instrumental in furthering a convoluted and controversial three-way land swap between the city, the health district and St. Helens School District.

John Walsh, the St. Helens city administrator, said his agency has given little consideration to the cases pending their resolution.

“We haven’t had any plans to acquire and dispose of the property or any discussions like that,” Walsh said.

He did say there was an “equity” question for the city as it related to its involvement in the three-way land swap, though he added he expected the property, should it be absorbed by the city, to be put to public benefit.

When voters opted in 2011 to dissolve the district following years of a failed effort to build a small community hospital, which had been hamstrung due to changes in federal indigent care policy and rising costs, exactly what was to be done with the property had not been spelled out in the dissolution plan crafted by a health district board that had not sought re-election to wrap up the district’s affairs.

Instead, a group of CHD critics who were vocally opposed to the hospital project ran unopposed in the May 2011 election and were elected to the board. Though the group had opportunities to review the dissolution plan and to make amendments prior to a public vote to dissolve the district later that year, it took no action to that effect despite questions and numerous news articles regarding the Millard Road property.

Months after presumably concluding the board’s business, the group, headed by former CHD Board Chair Tammy Maygra, filed the lawsuit as the commissioner trustees set out to settle the district’s debts and assets.