Complaint includes confidential memos from city manager

A West Linn resident has lodged a complaint with the state alleging an ethics violation naming City Councilors Mike Jones, Jenni Tan and Jody Carson, Mayor John Kovash and City Manager Chris Jordan.

The council and Jordan received notice March 13 that they were named in a complaint, which was filed by West Linn resident Karie Oakes. Former Councilor Teri Cummings submitted an attachment to the complaint.

Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt said, as of Monday, the city still hadn’t seen the complete complaint. The city is currently working to understand what the complaint entails and its basis.

“We’ve always done our utmost best to make sure any executive session or confidential memos are fully within those very narrow measures” as defined by state law, Wyatt said. “We take these types of complaints very seriously.”

Oakes has a long history of speaking at city council meetings questioning processes and holding councilors and city staff accountable for their actions.

Oakes said she filed the complaint because she thought the city council misused executive sessions to authorize the hiring of an in-house attorney, thus violating public meeting laws.

“I’ve seen a pattern of improper use of executive sessions,” she said. “It’s very frustrating for the public when they can’t participate in these decisions. ... This goes back to other incidences that I’ve seen.

“It’s pretty obvious to anyone in the public ... that this is a pattern going on since 2009.”

Along with the complaint from Oakes, which was submitted via a flash drive, was an attachment from Cummings that contains a series of newspaper articles and emails regarding the city adding an in-house attorney and a lawsuit filed against city councilors.

There is also a six-page letter from Cummings. In it she speculates the city manager was attempting to gain more power in the city by assuming control of city attorneys, dating back to 2009. The city council has historically overseen city attorneys.

Oakes said felt compelled to file the ethics complaint in hopes that the councilors and city manager “would learn from it.”

“I believe that the city council and city manager will use these tactics again in the future unless they are held accountable. I had no choice but to drop my lawsuit after the council held a perfunctory meeting and threatened to sue me for a frivolous lawsuit. I see no other recourse but (for) the ethics commission to review my complaints,” Oakes wrote in her letter to the commission.

Oakes, along with Cummings, had filed a lawsuit against the city last May over an executive session held March 12, 2012, concerning adding a new in-house attorney position. The complaint listed several alleged meeting violations committed by staff and city council members.

The complaint stated that the council violated Oregon law by reconvening a meeting without public notice or announcement; the exemption under which the council met in executive session was incorrect; and the council misused an executive session to evaluate city goals.

However, the lawsuit went nowhere as Cummings and Oakes did not serve the complaint to the city within the 60-day window set by law.

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission received the new complaint March 11. The details of the complaint are confidential for the time being, but Wyatt said the complaint includes confidential memos from Jordan to the city council.

Complaints stay confidential during a preliminary review phase, which could last up to 135 days. After the preliminary review, the commission will decide whether to move into an investigation or dismiss the complaint.

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission is made up of seven volunteers appointed by the governor to four-year terms. Ron Bersin administers the commission, which typically also employs two investigators, two trainers, a program analyst and two office support staffers, according to its website.

Oregon’s government ethics laws forbid public officials from using their positions for personal financial gain and require public disclosure of potential or actual economic conflicts of interest. The ethics commission also enforces executive session provisions of the state’s public meetings law.

This is not the first ethics complaint filed in West Linn. A complaint was filed against Carson back in 2010 concerning her vote on a proposed change to development rules in the historic Willamette area, where Carson lives. However, the ethics commission did not pursue an investigation of the allegation.

Another ethics complaint was recently filed in Lake Oswego alleging a city councilor violated ethics rules by leaking a memo labeled “confidential” to the press. That complaint is currently undergoing preliminary review.

According to Wyatt, the city will need to hire outside legal counsel to handle the ethics complaint.

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