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Ethics commission to investigate council


Former Councilor Teri Cummings, co-complainant, added to case

An ethics complaint filed against West Linn Mayor John Kovash and three city councilors will move into an official investigation stage, the Oregon Government Ethics Commission decided during a July 12 executive session. And, former City Councilor Teri Cummings has now been pulled into the investigation.by: SUBMITTED - Teri Cummings

The complaint was originally filed by West Linn resident Karie Oakes and Cummings on March 11 and named Kovash and City Manager Chris Jordan as well as Councilors Mikes Jones, Jody Carson and Jenni Tan. Oakes and Cummings alleged that the city council had misused executive sessions to hire an in-house attorney, which violated public meeting laws.

Though Jordan’s name was removed shortly after the complaint was filed, the ethics commission decided in March to move forward with its preliminary investigation of the others and reconvene during the executive session last week.

By that point, a new name had joined the group under investigation. Cummings is now being investigated alongside the rest of the current council.

Cummings supported Oakes’ original complaint with an attachment containing pertinent newspaper articles and emails, as well as a six-page letter in which she speculated that Jordan was attempting to gain more power by controlling the city’s attorneys.

Because Cummings was still a council member at the time of the executive session in question — March 12, 2012 — her actions have also been placed under formal investigation.

Cummings said she “self reported” what was thought to be violations, and thus was “not at all surprised” by this recent development.

“I didn’t have any part in the planning of this situation,” Cummings said. “That’ll be for (other councilors) to explain.”

The ethics commission’s preliminary review document, dated June 27, stated there was reason to believe all five councilors — including Cummings — “may have participated in an executive session in which violations of ORS 192.660 may have occurred.”

ORS 192.660 states, in part, that a governing body may not “conduct a general evaluation of an agency goal, objective or operation” during an executive session marked for a specific employee evaluation.

The complaint suggests that the majority of the council’s March 12 executive session had to do with reconfiguring the delivery of legal services, rather than reviewing the performance of City Attorney Tim Ramis. Neither Jordan nor Ramis was present during the executive session.

Cummings was present for the session, but left before the council reconvened for its public meeting. At that time, a motion to allow Jordan to recruit, hire and supervise an in-house attorney was passed 4-0, which Cummings thinks was not properly advertised to the public.

According to the preliminary review, audio from an earlier work session on March 12, 2012, shows that it was Ramis who first suggested using the executive session as a performance review to discuss the in-house attorney option. When Kovash asked if it was possible to discuss “what we want to do with a system, rather than performance,” Ramis said, “I don’t have any objections.”

During its official investigation, the ethics commission will seek to clarify this, though such a finding would not necessarily remove fault from the councilors. “Even if the investigation confirmed that the city attorney had advised that the executive session could lawfully be convened for the stated purpose,” the commission wrote, “that conclusion would not prevent the commission from making a finding of violation. It would simply mean that ORS 244.350(2)(b) would prevent the imposition of a civil penalty.”

To rectify any possible meeting violations, the council chose to re-conduct the vote of hiring an in-house attorney during its regular May 14 meeting in 2012. By re-holding the discussion and the vote at a regular meeting, the council nullified the executive session actions and corrected any violations, according to Chad Jacobs, one of the city’s attorneys with Beery, Elsner and Hammond.

Jordan, for his part, disagrees with the notion that there was ever a violation.

“It is our belief there has been no violation of public meetings law,” Jordan said. “To date, the Oregon Government Ethics Commission has not met with staff as part of its review of this matter.”

However, Kovash said, “This was an inadvertent violation that was under the guidance of our attorney. There’s an exclusion where if you act on advice of attorney, there’s not a penalty.”

Now that she, too, is under investigation, Cummings has requested the same legal advice provided to other councilors named in the investigation.

She asked Jordan about that possibility in a series of emails dated July 10. Jordan replied that, according to the West Linn City Charter, such a decision would lie in the hands of city council.

Cummings copied the city council into her response to Jordan, and stated that she would “look forward to hearing from Mayor Kovash and West Linn city councilors.”

Councilors did not respond, and in a subsequent email to Cummings Jordan cautioned that “it would be innappropriate for them to carry on any discussion of this matter via email as that may be considered deliberating toward a decision which would be a possible violation of Oregon public meeting law.”

Jordan suggested that Cummings appear before the council in person during a public comment session to make her request.

Cummings did not respond to that suggestion, and she later indicated in an interview that she hadn’t decided on her next step.