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Port commissioners network, rack up expenses at conference

Four people, including majority of port commission, traveled to nation's capital at agency's expense

COURTNEY VAUGHN - Port of St. Helens Commissioners Mike Avent (left) and Robert Keyser listen to feedback during a port meeting Wednesday, April 8. Both commissioners attended a PNWA conference in Washington, D.C. recently.

A five-day Pacific Northwest Waterways Association conference in Washington, D.C., cost the Port of St. Helens $14,452 for a majority of the commission to attend.

Records obtained from the Port of St. Helens show the public agency spent more than $2,200 per person to send three commissioners and the port’s executive director, Patrick Trapp, to the District of Columbia for the conference.

While out-of-state travel is common among elected officials at the local level, the Port of St. Helens Commission has faced increased public scrutiny over transparency.

Port of St. Helens Commission President Robert Keyser, Vice President Mike Avent and Commissioner Chris Iverson attended the conference Sunday, March 1, to Thursday, March 5.

Keyser said port commissioners travel to the nation’s capital every year for the conference, where they meet with lawmakers and learn about upcoming legislation and hear from agencies that could affect the port.

“We’ve always met with every single Northwest legislator,” Keyser said of the conference. “It’s always in D.C. right as they’re starting the budget session.”

All expenses for the trip, including meals, travel, hotels and conference registration, were paid for or reimbursed by the port.

In accordance with the agency’s policy of paying port commissioners $50 for each day they conduct port business outside of a regular meeting, commissioners were also paid $50 for each day of the conference. The agency provided a per diem payment allowance, but port financial staff said commissioners and staff aren’t required to submit meal receipts with their expense reports.

Records indicate both Keyser and Trapp traveled with their spouses, but the port paid for only the staff and commissioners’ travel expenses.

Budget documents show the port’s travel budget far exceeds that of other local agencies.

Columbia County budgeted $7,500 for conferences and training for commissioners in 2014, including two annual conferences. Port of St. Helens budgeted $70,000 for annual training and travel expenses for the same time period.

Costs aside, the port’s robust attendance at the 2015 PNWA event raises questions about transparency and effectiveness. The three commissioners who went to the same event make up a quorum of the port’s voting body. Two of the three commissioners who attended are up for reelection this May.

In accordance with Oregon public meeting laws, a majority of a voting body’s officials may attend the same event, as long as they do not discuss official business together. That restriction can be nearly impossible to monitor during out-of-town trips, however.

Some agencies choose to send fewer people on travel trips, to cut costs and reduce the potential for de facto public meetings violations. Attendees will then share notes from the event with their board or commission colleagues.

Keyser said commissioners usually opt not to share notes, citing concerns over public meetings laws that limit email exchanges between commissioners. Oregon public records law does not prohibit the sharing of notes, such as over email or as a presentation during a public meeting, between commissioners and staff.

“How many go doesn’t really matter to me,” he said. “Some years, nobody can go, and some years a few of us go.”

Avent said he tries to attend every other year.

Keyser said the trip provides valuable information to port commissioners and its executive director.

Attendees keep busy schedules, Keyser said, starting with meetings around 8:30 a.m. and continuing into the evening with dinner events related to the conference. Commissioners and staff get opportunities to meet with key officials from agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which can influence Port of St. Helens business.

Avent agreed, citing intangible benefits from the annual conference.

“Most of the takeaway for me is being able to keep a dialog with our state reps,” Avent said. “Also, it’s networking with our counterparts and peers.”