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Former PUD manager seeks $25k for breach of contract

Former manager alleges breach of contract for statements made by CRPUD board VP, Jake Carter


Kevin Owens, right, former Columbia River People's Utility District General Manager, and former PUD attorney Kirk Gibson attend a 2014 PUD board meeting. Owens says the PUD recently violated its non-disparagement clause with him and is demanding $25,000.

Former Columbia River People's Utility Distirct General Manager Kevin Owens is demanding $25,000 plus $2,000 for attorney's fees from the electric utility for what he says is a breach of his separation agreement.

In a demand letter sent to the utility Friday, Sept. 4, Dana Sullivan, an attorney for Owens, asserted that recent comments made by CRPUD Board Vice President Jake Carter at a public meeting about employee retention agreements were defamatory or disparaging to Owens.

When Owens left the district in December 2014, the district signed a separation agreement with him that gave him six months' pay, half his annual bonus and additional benefits. The agreement also contained a non-disparagement clause. The clause indicated a $25,000 payout if either party made disparaging statements about the other.

At a Tuesday, Aug. 18, board meeting, Carter addressed agreements that were executed in late 2014 for four of the district's managers. The contracts would provide bonuses for employees who stayed with the district past Aug. 3, in an effort to prevent top level staff members from leaving at a critical time of transition.

Carter said the board was unaware of the contracts and the district's attorney, Philip Griffin, said he was evaluating them to see whether they complied with the district's public contracting rule.

“It was unbeknownst to the board ... that these retention agreements were out there,” Carter told the public during the Aug. 18 meeting. “It’s not been a practice here for the management team to have a contract.”

Owens' attorney said Carter created an impression that Owens broke district policy by putting the contracts in place, which reflects poorly on his peformance as a manager.

“Mr. Carter's statements … are a patent violation of the obligation of Columbia River PUD and its Board and managers to refrain from making defamatory or disparaging statements about Mr. Owens,” the letter to CRPUD states. “Moreover, Mr. Carter's public statements are likely to adversely impact Mr. Owens' candidacy for executive positions for which he is currently under consideration, thereby exposing Columbia River PUD to liability for intentional interference with business relations.”

The letter claims Owens had the agreements reviewed by the district's legal counsel at the time and notified then-board president, Carol Everman.

Griffin said the letter is “being reviewed and analyzed for potential merit of the claim.”

He noted the $25,000 could be paid or the claim could be disputed at the discretion of the general manager, according to district policy.

“The CRPUD board is entitled to be apprised of any litigation,” Griffin said, but not required to vote on legal expenses or settlements unless they exceed $50,000.

Records indicate the district has exceeded its budget for legal expenses by about $72,255 so far this year.

Current CRPUD Interim General Manager John Nguyen was fired by Owens in 2013 and filed suit against the district and Owens before dropping his case and settling out of court.

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