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County's secrecy in cattle case unjustified

by: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - The seized cattle graze at pasture outside St. Helens in July 2012.Columbia County has recently shown itself to be moving in the wrong direction when it comes to transparency in government dealings, as a recent case involving seized cattle illustrates.

The Columbia County Board of Commissioners has been steadily working toward sale of a cattle herd in the county’s possession — despite legal challenges to the county’s rights to the herd — almost entirely behind closed doors.

The county board, as it appears to us, is using a questionable tactic of having its legal counsel, Sarah Hanson, act on its behalf to dispose of the cattle via sale to the Nevis Company.

Only one public decision has been made regarding the cattle to our knowledge. That decision was made at a Dec. 12 Columbia County Board of Commissioners staff meeting and was purportedly to confirm previous actions that had already occurred a month earlier, in secret. Commissioner Henry Heimuller, for example, had already signed a purchase and sale agreement to sell the cattle to The Nevis Company on Nov. 9, a decision not addressed publicly until the Dec. 12 ratification.

Interestingly — and conveniently — the board’s decision to ratify the decision publicly occurred after The Spotlight submitted a request for records under Oregon’s Public Records and Meetings law. We were notified our records were ready for pick-up on Dec. 13.

Oregon Public Records and Meetings law prohibits public boards from making formal decisions in private, regardless of the sensitive nature of such decisions. Yet this is exactly what appears to have occurred, with the December decision to make it public an apparent afterthought.

Additionally, the board has been nonresponsive and evasive when asked about the cattle herd, and too frequently there have been discrepancies in the board’s comments about how the herd was being cared for. On one occasion Heimuller called The Spotlight office and asked that information regarding the sale, which had first been mistakenly released to reporter Katie Wilson, not be reported.

As we reported last week, Columbia County agreed to sign what amounts to a nondisclosure agreement with the California-based Nevis Company regarding negotiations between the two parties to sell a cattle herd that had been in the possession of William Holdner, the Scappoose farmer who is accused of neglecting the animals.

The county had seized the cattle in August for reported welfare abuses based on the findings of an Oregon Humane Society investigation into Holdner, who had earlier been convicted for pollution crimes at his farm and ordered to liquidate his cattle assets. Holdner, it should be noted, is currently facing criminal charges in Columbia County Circuit Court for animal neglect, and this editorial should in no way be considered a defense of Holdner for any crimes he allegedly committed.

Following the county taking possession of the cattle on July 26, records show Holdner and his business partner, Jane Baum of Warren, who is the owner of Viewcrest Farms LLC, entered into a sale negotiation with The Nevis Company on Aug. 17 to sell the agricultural commodities company the 169 cattle. Federal court filings further indicate Holdner had sold some of the cattle to Baum in June, before they were seized.

Despite several questions that had been raised regarding the cattle, including allegations from Holdner and other non-associated parties who claimed the cattle were receiving poor care under the county’s watch, county officials routinely refused to address any questions regarding the herd.

Worse, they purposefully misled the media and public when pressed about the whereabouts of the cattle, even going so far as the county commissioners issuing a press release in mid-November stating the county had moved the cattle to a working farm, when in fact the county had already reached a sale agreement with the Nevis Company pending receipt of title from Holdner, which would be obtained as a foreclosure proceeding. That foreclosure proceeding is scheduled for Jan. 14, yet the Nevis Company has already paid the county more than $70,000 and the cattle have been moved.

The press release was misdirection by omission, but a purposeful misdirection all the same.

The only justification we can ascertain regarding the misleading statements is that the county commissioners, through Hanson, signed an “agreement of preliminary discussions” that included a condition directing the county and Nevis Company representatives to “not make any statements to any media or to any other person including Holdner by comment, oral or written, regarding an agreement for potential transfer of cattle to the Company.”

The big question is, why?

There are several concerning points regarding the agreement of preliminary discussions.

First, there is no underlying reason, as near as we can ascertain and considering the county’s closed-lip position on the cattle, for the county to agree to this level of secrecy. Nevis Company owner, Alfred E. Nevis, first signed the agreement on Nov. 2, followed by Hanson’s signing on Nov. 5. Understandably The Nevis Company may wish to keep its business dealings discreet until settled, but that doesn’t — and shouldn’t — serve as impetus for a public government agency to bow to that request. A transparent government would have refused, especially when there are legitimate questions tied to the herd regarding the use of public resources — money — for its care.

There is some question as to whether the county was in a legal position to agree to sale of the herd and to have moved it under the care of a private company having not officially foreclosed upon it, despite Holdner and Baum’s obvious intention to sell it based on the August agreement with Nevis.

Baum and her company, Viewcrest Farms LLC, raised this exception in federal district court in a lawsuit filed Jan. 4 that alleges the county disregarded due process in its actions concerning the cattle sale to Nevis, and that Viewcrest Farms LLC is the rightful owner based on a June sale agreement between Baum and Holdner.

Additionally, we have found county representatives to be evasive and prone to making misleading statements when pressed on the cattle, including at one point asserting to our reporter that District Attorney Stephen Atchison had advised the commissioners not to talk about the Holdner case or the cattle herd. According to Atchison, no such advisement occurred.

The level of secrecy the county has adopted for the cattle case has not been justified. In fact, we are having a hard time figuring out why, exactly, the commissioners have decided to toss the public’s right to information out the door on this case. From the outside looking in, it doesn’t seem to be that big of a deal.

And that, more than anything, is cause for alarm.