State agency is investigating whether mayor has run afoul of campaign law
by: Christian Gaston and Nancy Townsley Recall supporters Jennifer Heuer (left), Bill Bash (center) and Kevin Harmon (right), wave signs urging voters to cast their ballots in a recall election targeting the city’s mayor, Neal Knight, and two city councilors, Jamie Minshall and Mari Gottwald.

Things keep getting worse for Cornelius Mayor Neal Knight.

In the middle of a bruising recall campaign, Knight is now the target of an investigation by the Oregon Secretary of State's office into whether he knowingly published false information in campaign materials, a violation of Oregon law.

Andrea Cantu-Schomus, spokeswoman for Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, said the complaint was under investigation, but wouldn't release more details about it.

When Knight ran last fall to be mayor of Cornelius, he said he knew the job 'sucked.'

When asked Tuesday whether he still thought so, his answer hadn't changed.

'Yeah I do,' Knight said. 'Why wouldn't I?'

But Knight's troubles don't end there.

On top of waiting to see whether voters throw him out of office in a Sep. 27 recall campaign and whether the state thinks he violated the law, Knight's also waiting for the conclusions of a city investigation into whether he violated the city charter by trying to influence former city manager Dave Waffle's decisions regarding personnel and setting the council's agenda.

Knight said Tuesday that the problems stem from Brad Coffey, a former city councilor who was defeated by two allies of Knight's, Mari Gottwald and Jamie Minshall, in the 2010 election.

'If Brad really wants the job that much he could have put this much energy into running for office and he'd have the job now,' Knight said.

Coffey, for his part denies the charge, saying he's working to recall Knight, Minshall and Gottwald because they've hurt the city's finances by firing Waffle (who was paid $110,000 in severence) and professing to remove the city's General Services Fee, which would blow a large hole in the city's budget.

The city's former counsel, Paul Elsner, found that Knight had coerced Waffle, but the coercion didn't account to a violation of the charter.

The city council, led by Knight and his allies on council, Jamie Minshall and Mari Gottwald moved to dismiss Elsner following the report and kill the contract with the law firm.

But a city can't operate without a lawyer, so the council voted to work with a different lawyer from Elsner's firm until a contracting process could be held.

Public statements upend lawyer search

But last week, Paul Rubenstein, who is serving as the city's interim city manager, said the search for a law firm should be restarted based on a line in an article submitted by Gottwald to a number of newspapers, including the News-Times.

In the article, Gottwald again asserts that Elsner lied, this time during a public meeting, and charged that Elsner was working in Waffle's interest, not the city's.

'Mr. Elsner did a fine job of acting on what Mr. Waffle wanted, but not such a fine job of acting in the city's best interests,' Gottwald wrote.

In the same paragraph, Gottwald indicated that one of the six law firms that applied for the city contract was better than others.

'A very respected law firm has applied for the position of City Attorney. I feel confident that they will do a good job, and actually be the City's Attorney, not Mr. Waffle's attorney,' Gottwald wrote. 'We need the chance to hire this firm.'

At last week's city council meeting, Rubenstein said the public comments could open the city up to a lawsuit.

'There were some public comments that were made - I mean we are talking about attorney firms - that would allow whomever didn't get it to challenge the process and the cost of the litigation, whether it's successful or not, is money we don't have and money we don't have to pay,' Rubenstein said.

City Councilor Steve Heinrich, who opposed severing ties with Elsner and his firm, said he was bothered by the appearance that Team 3 had already discussed the law firms and determined which would be their preference.

'I just didn't feel it was right. How can they decide if it hasn't been discussed in public?' Heinrich told the News-Times. 'I didn't think they were allowed to discuss that stuff.'

At the meeting last week, Rubenstein echoed that advice, telling the city council to keep conversations about city business, particularly the hiring of a law firm, to city council sessions.

'You, as councilors, have to have conversations about it on the dais,' Rubenstein said. 'You can't talk about it anywhere else.'

Contract for service likely scrapped

Knight said he would likely stop pushing for an outside firm to review city operations following Rubenstein's report that it would cost at least $50,000.

Knight said he wanted his friend, Dennis Griffiths, to conduct the review. Griffiths had offered to do the job for $7,000, but has left the state.

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