Clarke supporters say port used public money to promote incumbents; third-party campaign with coal companys PR firm contributes to incumbents reelection effort

by: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Campaign signs dot yards and roadsides in Columbia County in the weeks leading up to the May 21 election.A group behind Port of St. Helens commissioner candidate Michael Clarke says the port committed election fraud by advocating for incumbent commissioners in the agency’s summer newsletter distributed just days before the May 21 election.

In addition, a third-party campaign in support of incumbent Terry Luttrell has been coordinated through Gard Communications, the Portland public relations firm that represents Australian coal company Ambre Energy, which seeks to build a coal export facility at Port of St. Helens property at Port Westward near Clatskanie.

With only five days left until the election, it’s not clear if the candidate at the center of all this is even aware of the newsletter or the third-party campaign.

“Ambre has not contributed to this campaign at this point,” said Liz Fuller, director of client services at Portland-based Gard Communications. But, she said, a “loose coalition of unions and businesses” have contributed, including the railroad, businesses both inside and outside of Columbia County and trade unions.

To date, the group has sent out two mailers to residents of the Port District: a letter of support from St. Helens resident Diane Dillard, who worked with Luttrell at Boise, and a single-page, fold-over brochure. A statement of independent expenditures provided by Gard Communications, shows the communications firm has contributed $2,547 in in-kind donations to the group to support Luttrell’s re-election.

“While he [Luttrell] wasn’t running an organized campaign, there were people interested in campaigning on his behalf,” Fuller said. But, she emphasized, “It’s very much a third-party expenditure... I actually have no idea if Terry knows about it.”

It is also not clear if he knows about the profile published in the Port’s annual newsletter, “The Compass.”

The publication gathers together a variety of port news and announcements, includes a column from the port commission president and features short profiles on port staff.

This time, the newsletter featured two commissioners on the last page, Chris Iverson and Luttrell, who are both up for re-election. Though the profiles don’t specifically solicit voter support, Luttrell’s states that he wants to continue serving with those who want to enhance the region’s economy. “We have a good commission here. We work well together,” he is quoted as saying in the profile.

Also, the profiles are prefaced by a statement explaining port commissioner service terms and that they are elected from across the port district.

Paula Miranda, the Port’s deputy director, initially said the intent was not to promote the re-election of the two commissioners, but to highlight their work for the Port.

“It could be the last opportunity we have to thank them if for some reason they don’t get elected,” she said.

This explanation does not satisfy Luttrell’s challenger, Michael Clarke, an attorney based in Scappoose.

Only Luttrell has a challenger, Clarke said. Iverson is running unopposed and will likely be re-elected.

Clarke questioned why the newsletter, typically a summer publication, had to come out so early, right before an election when the port could have waited to see who was elected, welcomed any newcomers and thanked any incumbents.

“That wouldn’t have caused any red flags,” he said. “But what we have now causes red flags.”

“It seems like a huge transparency problem for the Port,” he added, calling the profiles a “misuse of public funds.”

Miranda said final copies of the newsletter are sent out to all commissioners, but she said she doesn’t believe either Luttrell or Iverson saw the newsletter before it was published. Robert Keyser, as commission president, reviewed it before publication. He said staff and commissioners typically review the newsletter, but the profiles highlighting Luttrell and Iverson didn’t raise any red flags.

“It didn’t cross my mind,” he said.

Clarke’s supporters plan to file a complaint with the State Elections Division.

The morning after the Spotlight called to ask about the newsletter featuring Iverson and Luttrell, Miranda clarified her earlier statement in an email.

“Yesterday I was reminded that one of the reasons we decided to feature Terry and Chris was because of their hard work as our liaisons for the marina (Terry) and the airport (Chris),” she wrote. “We had a fair amount of work done in both locations, which are also featured in the newsletter. This was the appropriate time to feature the commissioners who were mostly involved with those particular sites.”

Projects at both the marina and airport were highlighted in the newsletter, but do not mention the involvement of either port commissioner. Neither do the profiles of Luttrell and Iverson draw attention to any specific work they did with the marina or the airport.

A 2009 newsletter profiled Commissioner Mike Avent. The port provides access to the newsletters going back to 2010 on its website and in these, only Iverson had been featured as a commissioner in 2010 and brief congratulations were given to re-elected port commissioners in 2011. Profiles of new staff hires have been featured regularly.

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