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PUD board votes to discipline, withhold pay from director

Narrow vote came after complaints of internal policy violations

After a tense public hearing Tuesday evening to consider complaints filed against Columbia River People’s Utility District Director Dave Baker, the PUD’s board voted narrowly to censure Baker and take away his director pay.

Complaints filed by the district’s general manager, John Nguyen, accuse Baker of violating a recently implemented board governance policy. The complaints stem from comments Baker made in June during an Oregon People’s Utility District Association meeting, in which he brought up news coverage of the Columbia River PUD, including its open lawsuit with four former employees who were fired by Nguyen.

During the same meeting, Baker referenced a conversation he had with the PUD’s attorney about the likely outcome of the case, which is also a violation of the governance policy, Nguyen asserted.SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Dave Baker, a director with the Columbia River PUD, defends himself against complaints lodged by the PUD's general manager.

The board governance policy essentially forbids directors from speaking negatively about the district and prevents them from sharing information they deem privileged or confidential with the public or press, unless a majority of the board agrees. Nguyen alleged Baker was purposefully trying to attack his character and portray the PUD in a negative light. He also referenced a CRPUD board meeting in May, in which Baker asked Nguyen whether Nguyen had followed the appropriate insurance and legal protocols before terminating four employees last year.

“I have two concerns with Dave’s recent statements,” Nguyen wrote in his initial complaint, filed June 28. “First, the information he provided was given during Executive Session and should not have been disclosed. Second, it served no purpose for Dave to make those comments in that particular forum. It was completely irrelevant to the group discussion, and the purpose for OPUDA.”

Nguyen claimed Baker’s statements regarding the news coverage were a personal attack on him. In two subsequent complaints against Baker, Nguyen also referenced articles in the Spotlight, in which Baker was quoted as saying he was “shocked and disgusted” following Nguyen’s decision to abruptly fire four top managers. Nguyen called Baker an “unwarranted liability risk” to the PUD. He filed a third complaint against Baker, alleging Baker leaked emails between he and the PUD attorney, along with the complaints against him, to the Spotlight.

Ratepayers look over copies of complaints Tuesday evening during a Columbia River PUD board of directors meeting. The complaints were vetted and voted on by the PUD's board of directors.Baker was accused of acting against the interests of the PUD, sharing confidential information, speaking negatively about the district and going against the general focus of the PUD.

Nguyen declined to defend or address his complaints against Baker during the hearing, but Baker didn’t hold back.

“I 100 percent disagree with everything John [Nguyen] wrote,” Baker said.

“I think you’re trying to silence me and intimidate me... I want nothing but the best PUD and I want real transparency and I want the truth to come out.”

Baker said he felt the governance policy was crafted as a tool to use against him for being an opponent to many policy and management hiring decisions.

“It’s my opinion your time could be spent on other things rather than trying to embarrass me,” Baker told Nguyen, adding that he felt Nguyen’s complaints amounted to a smear campaign against him during election season. Baker is not running for reelection.

Regarding Nguyen’s specific complaints, Baker said he was simply updating fellow OPUDA members about what was going on at the PUD.

“The information I said at the OPUDA meeting was already in the local paper. I also talked to Phil [Griffin, attorney for the PUD] twice and he told me that this was a done deal,” Baker said.

He said his comments regarding Nguyen’s personnel actions were his personal opinions, and hence has First Amendment protections.

Directors briefly convened in executive session during the hearing.

After hearing Baker’s responses, the board voted 3-2, with Baker and Director Richard Simpson opposed, that Baker had violated the governance policy.

When considering options for disciplining Baker, Director Craig Melton recommended publicly reprimanding Baker, with a statement being recorded in meeting minutes. President Jake Carter wasn’t satisfied.

“We have multiple issues here,” he said, after saying he attended the same OPUDA meeting in which Baker directed others to Spotlight articles about the district. Carter said Baker’s comments were out of focus during the industry meeting.

“This PUD and this board has been through a lot in a few years,” Carter said. “We’re trying to go in a positive direction. My opinion is that’s not what Dave is doing right now.”

Carter recommended public reprimand, via a vote of no confidence in Baker, as well as withholding Baker’s monthly stipend he receives as compensation for serving on the board.

The discipline was approved 3-1-0, with Simpson opposed and Baker abstaining.

Carter said Baker’s stipend should be taken away until the end of his term.

It’s unclear whether the board can legally rescind the compensation of its fellow elected officials, or even exercise discipline.

Phil Griffin, the PUD’s attorney, pointed to case law involving a school board member, in which the board member was removed from his position as vice president of the board, but in that case, the board member retained all of his duties and benefits.

Jack Orchard, an attorney with Portland-based law firm Ball Janik, said elected officials have limited capacity to discipline fellow board members, unless the agency is following a charter that allows them to do so.