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PUD names counsel, seeks clarity on legal fees

Directors told district could be charged to review detailed billing invoices

SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Philip Griffin, left, attorney for the Columbia River PUD, listens to public comments alongside PUD Director Dave Baker during a meeting March 15. Griffin was recently selected as the attorney of record for the district moving forward. Despite objections from a board member over costs of legal fees, the Columbia River People’s Utility District voted to appoint Philip Griffin, of Clarke Griffin LLC law firm, as the PUD’s attorney of record.

Griffin has been serving as the utility district’s attorney since January 2015 after the exit of two of the PUD’s attorneys at the end of 2014.

Griffin was selected without a bidding process.

Columbia River PUD Director Dave Baker voiced concern over hiring a legal firm without first comparing costs among other legal firms. In previous meetings, Baker has questioned whether the PUD is overpaying for its legal fees.

According to records, the district paid about $106,490 for its legal fees in 2014. The following year, it spent $266,144, not including $123,000 in employee settlements. So far this year, the PUD has spent about $113,800, and expects to spend $175,000 by the end of the year.

District staff addressed the fees again during a PUD meeting Tuesday, July 12, saying consulting fees account for a $65,000 cost variance in the PUD’s budget.

“The variance is mostly due to legal expense,” Tracy Pinder, the PUD’s accounting and finance supervisor, said Tuesday. “Legal expense is a difficult item to predict.”

Last month, Director Richard Simpson asked to see legal invoices with itemized fees, showing the services the PUD is billed for each month. Simpson was told the PUD would be charged by Clarke Griffin if he wanted to review an itemized statement of legal fees. John Nguyen, the PUD’s interim general manager, told Simpson the district doesn’t divulge detailed invoices because “they contain confidential information not appropriate for public distribution,” according to minutes from the June 21 PUD meeting.

Simpson was told he could stop by the legal offices and review the statements with Griffin “at little cost.”

The appointment of Clarke Griffin was approved 4-1 with Baker opposed at the June 21 meeting. Last month’s vote was one of several opposed by Baker over the past year. Baker has become the lone dissenting voice on many votes since Directors Craig Melton and Harry Price took office in 2015. The board has largely been split on votes regarding management and personnel or policy changes, with Baker and Simpson opposed. Baker is also the subject of two complaints, one filed by a ratepayer and another filed by Nguyen.

Complaints filed

Two complaints have been filed against Columbia River People’s Utility District Director Dave Baker for his actions and comments during public meetings. One complaint was filed by ratepayer Debbie Reed of Scappoose, whose husband is a Scappoose city councilor. Reed said during a recent meeting, Baker used his cell phone to record her public comments. Reed took issue with the recording, saying she did not grant permission to be recorded. She wrote a letter demanding any video recorded by Baker be destroyed and his cell phone surrendered to the PUD. State law allows anyone to record and photograph public meetings, without requesting prior permission.

The second complaint was filed by General Manager John Nguyen. It was not released by the PUD after a records request. The PUD cited attorney-client privilege as reason to withhold the complaints.

Directors expected to address general manager selection

PUD directors are expected to decide how to proceed with a general manager selection at next month’s meeting. Nguyen was appointed to serve as interim general manager in August 2015 and has served in that role since then. Jake Carter, president of the Columbia River PUD board, said previously that he’d like the option to directly appoint Nguyen without using a competitive bid process, but only if the rest of the board agreed. Other directors, like Melton, said the PUD should advertise the position and recruit from a pool of qualified candidates, including Nguyen.