Video captures conversation between city staff and LOT

Residents got a behind-the-scenes look at how city planning works last week when a camera was left running after a planning commission meeting.

Conversations between city staff and representatives from the Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Partnership were recorded for nearly an hour after the Oct. 25 meeting was over.

That evening’s agenda was the conclusion of public testimony, the third in a series of hearings in the conditional use process for an expansion of a water treatment plant in West Linn’s Robinwood neighborhood and the installation of a new pipeline.

West Linn residents have continually expressed concern about the projects. Residents worry about years of disruption, reduced property values, noise, light, construction traffic, risk of flooding and burst pipes, chemicals and the appropriateness of the site.

Over the past two years, some residents have expressed distrust with the city and that the project is being pushed ahead without protecting or listening to the residents. To some, the recorded conversation confirms their opinion.

After the audience and planning commissioners left on Oct. 25, West Linn Attorney Pam Beery, Planning Director John Sonnen, Associate Planner Zach Pelz and LOT representatives Carrie A. Richter with Garvey Schubert Barer, Jonathan Holland with Brown and Caldwell and Pete Oveson with Brown and Caldwell stayed behind to talk. Though they were mostly off screen, the majority of their conversation could be heard.

Tonight will be LOT’s chance for rebuttal and time for the planning commissioners to ask questions, so last week the group talked about what should be addressed during rebuttal.

The West Linn Tidings obtained a recording of the conversation, which was streamed live on the city’s website but later removed from the video now posted online.

Truckloads, traffic and pilings were among the topics discussed. Richter also asked to be given written testimony as it comes in to the city throughout the week, and Pelz offered to post it to the Web as it comes in.

“I typically don’t mind getting the applicant’s perspective,” said Beery.

The conversation took a turn when the applicants said they wouldn’t delve too deeply into some issues because the projects are almost guaranteed to be appealed to the city council and the process will start over again anyway.

“This planning commission, I think you know, just wants to do everything regardless of the fact that we make it a procedural do-over. ... They just really want to do everything right and be very deliberative of that,” Beery said.

When the group discussed criteria and the wants of the neighbors, they said a lot of the issues neighbors raised are not tied to the criteria needed to approve the projects.

“We could respond to a whole bunch of irrelevant stuff to really tug on somebody’s heartstrings,” Holland said.

West Linn staff members agreed.

“The extent that you make it politically more palatable for (planning commissioners) by responding to some of the neighbors’ concerns that aren’t captured in criteria ... I mean, that’s probably good to put that toward the end than waste valuable time,” Sonnen said.

Shortly after, the LOT representatives left and city staff stayed behind and continued talking for about a half hour.

As is custom for the city, the meeting footage was cut to show gavel to gavel, and so this conversation is no longer on the website. Also, according to City Manager Chris Jordan, because the conversation included the city attorney speaking with staff members, it is considered attorney-client privilege.

Since last weekend, copies of the footage have been shared with neighbors in Robinwood and beyond. Some have had a strong reaction to it, believing the city should not be interacting and making game plans with the applicant.

“My reaction is it’s extremely unfortunate,” resident Dave Froode said. “At first it hurt. The very people I hope have our best interest at stake are working against us. That angers me.”

Resident Eric Jones was also upset after watching the footage. “I was appalled that the level of collusion raised to this level. I am very disappointed.”

Jones said the city was attempting to get the project approved regardless of what citizens want.

“The neighborhood has suspected for a long time this issue has been controlled by the city,” he said. “The process needs to be halted and examined. ... The process is biased toward the applicant and that is not what code requires.”

Resident Bob Stowell said, “They are just trying to cram this thing down our throat. ... Frankly, I don’t trust the city at all.”

However, city officials said these interactions, though not caught on video, happen frequently in the planning process.

“If there was an issue of secrecy, they wouldn’t have been meeting in the council chambers,” Jordan said.

Jordan said planners have discussions with applicants, no matter what the proposal, throughout the planning process to ensure every detail is addressed.

“If we screw up on process, we could lose on a mistake made by us. If (the applicant) can tell us up front what they object to, we know what to address,” Jordan said.

Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt said city staff and the city council have been uncomfortable during the whole LOT application process, having to walk a thin line between favoring residents over an applicant. She said the residents think the city hasn’t helped them enough and the applicant feels like the city has helped residents too much.

“It’s hard to figure out where to toe the line,” she said. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘Is this an atypical conversation that would happen in another land use case?’ and this is not.”

Jordan stressed the need that when the application goes to city council and the council makes its decision that it is upheld if it is taken to the state land use board of appeals.

“Whether it gets approved or not is not our decision,” Jordan said, although he did point out that staff is recommending approval of the projects. He denied any collusion.

When working with an applicant, Jordan said, the city tries to “come to a conclusion that is best for everyone in the end. ... If a community as a whole benefits from this project, we are going to try to make this happen.”

“This isn’t personal to (the residents). ... It’s about how to move land use forward,” Wyatt said. “They need to recognize staff is pushing forward a process that works. It’s not about taking sides.”

The planning commission will meet at 7 p.m. today at city hall to hear rebuttal from LOT and have time for the commissioners to ask questions and potentially deliberate on the application.

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