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Clackamas County denies charges by Oregon City, Gladstone of sewer conspiracy

Oregon City and Gladstone took their face-off with Clackamas County to new heights by accusing the county’s elected officials of a conspiracy during their discussion about sewer issues this week.

FILE PHOTO - Clackamas County officials talk in the Tri-City sewage treatment plant in Oregon City.According to the cities, county officials plan to spend enough taxpayer dollars on new sewage-sludge digesters so that the cities would have no choice but to cooperate with the interests of rapidly growing Happy Valley and unincorporated county areas in sending more sewage to the plant in Oregon City.

“They did a similar thing with light rail,” said Gladstone City Councilor Steve Johnson, comparing the sewer issue with the county commission’s 2012 approval of a $20 million payment to TriMet before the countywide voter approval of a measure that requires more public votes before county officials can spend money on rail lines.

“We feel like we’re being disenfranchised with each step of the process,” said Gladstone Interim Administrator Ross Schultz said. “We’re asking to make sure that we're getting a fair shake and not getting swept into a merger (with Clackamas County Service District No. 1).”

County staff assured the group meeting on Nov. 18 that they’ll be working to make sure Water Environment Services brings an objective evaluation to the cities in February.

“It’s a little offensive to suggest … that we’re going to collude,” Clackamas County WES Director Greg Geist said.

Schultz received Oregon City’s blessing on his proposal to recommend a third-party assessment of a newly invented incinerator called the Omni Processor, which the cities expect will save the county $40 million. But West Linn Councilor Brenda Perry, speaking for the potential third vote on the Tri-City Service District Advisory Board, said that she wasn’t convinced of the difference in cost, given the replacement of parts that might be required, so Schultz dropped the issue.

“This is just political theater,” said OC Mayor Dan Holladay. “Oregon City is terrified about hosting more facilities for Clackamas County Service District No. 1.”

‘Feeling of complete uselessness'

While city officials were confident that DEQ would grant the permits for an Omni Processor in Oregon, county officials remain skeptical.

“My experience with the regulators is that it can be an extensive process,” Geist said.

In order to test the material at the prototype processor in Washington, the county would have to apply for a permit to send sewage sludge across state lines. Meanwhile, even if the processor were built in Oregon City, it’s unclear where it would fit in the systems currently in place at the Tri-City plant.

“In my opinion, it’s premature to send material up there,” Geist said.

“I trust you; I believe you’re doing the right thing,” Holladay told Geist, but Holladay added that he couldn’t trust the county commission to put undue pressure on county staff. “We believe this is a political issue that needs to be addressed in a political forum.”

As cities pushed for the county to consider less expensive technologies at the Tri-City treatment plant in Oregon City, Tri-City’s attorney made it clear that city officials have no power over the assets at the plant.

“It’s a feeling of complete uselessness,” said Tony Konkol, Oregon City’s interim city manager, as the three city representatives voted unanimously to recommend that the Board of County Commissioners consider a request for an independent opinion into the legal relationship between the county and cities.

Oregon City and Gladstone, fully expecting another brush-off by county commissioners, have retained attorneys to represent their interests in the growing dispute. After losing a lawsuit challenging the fee, Clackamas County undercollected Oregon City’s right-of-way fee by $4,115 out of a total of $290,000, so Oregon City and county officials agreed that the difference would be carried forward in the calculation for collecting from ratepayers in the coming year.

City officials see the $90,000 that the county spent on attorney fees challenging the fee as wasted ratepayer funds. The three cities had urged the county not to pursue the issue further to no avail. Geist said he carried Tri-City board’s unanimous recommendation to a business meeting of the BCC, which is the governing board.

“The laughter at the meeting after that was proposed was the (county commissioners’) idea of a polite response?” asked Holladay in response.

Fireworks started going off even before any discussion of the sewer plant, during Geist’s report about customer satisfaction in a poll of ratepayers. When challenged over the cost of the poll, Geist said that county staff should be able to decide to find out more about customers without any input from elected officials.

“I disagree; I think this group should be more involved in that,” Johnson said.

When Johnson brought up a $2 million technology study, Clackamas County staff said the proposed contract went down to less than $1 million; county officials said they are negotiating with the contractor to reduce the costs of the study further.

“Is this another staff-level thing that won’t come before this committee?” Johnson said.

“We intend to continue the open process,” Geist responded.