A special invitation for the Hood River County Commissioners to attend the annual meeting of a land-use watchdog group raised a flurry of ethical concerns this week.
On Tuesday, Scott Franke, representing the Hood River Valley Residents Committee, personally delivered invitations to the courthouse that included handwritten notes to each board member.
The lead officials were invited to attend the HRVRC annual meeting and picnic on July 21 at Toll Bridge Park, where the pending litigation over the county’s land trade with Mt. Hood Meadows would be one of the main topics of discussion. In addition, the destination resort application process and legalities would be addressed, along with an update on the existing Wal-Mart application.
Part of the message penned to chair John Arens was of special concern to Teunis Wyers, county general counsel, because he believed it could lead to a potential legal challenge. The disputed sentence was a direct reference to the filing of a destination resort application by Mt. Hood Meadows, Ltd.
“They say Meadows plans to rush the application while you are still there to vote for it — I hope you are not yet decided,” said Franke, a local attorney who is organizing the 25th annual event.
The issuance of the invitations drew fire from Dave Riley, Meadows general manager, who said, “Being an attorney, HRVRC representative Scott Franke should have known that he is ethically precluded from contacting a represented party regarding a matter in litigation.”
However, Franke said his intent was not to cause problems but simply to invite the county board to listen to new information.
“I don’t really know the full extent of the ethical rules, I was just putting out an invitation because I think these folks have some obligation to educate themselves,” he said.
But Wyers contends that is not the way elected officials are supposed to aquire information when they are likely to be involved in quasi-judicial hearings. He said it is very likely the county board will be considering an appeal of the Wal-Mart application and possibly the Meadows application if and when it is filed.
“It’s critical that everyone interested in decisions that affect our community remember that there are rules to be followed as those decisions are made,” Wyers said.
He said the comment by Franke is direct “ex-parte” contact which could open Arens and the county to legal liability. He said there are strict rules governing hearings over land-uses that require elected officials to ensure fairness to the applicant. According to Wyers, any direct outside influence on the final decision can result in a lawsuit if the aggrieved party believes the process was flawed.
“Engaging in such contact usually pollutes the process and may neutralize the vote of the decision-maker involved,” said Wyers.
In addition, Wyers said the commission could incur personal liability from either Meadows or Wal-Mart since a quorum would be present where public matters were being discussed. Therefore the officials in attendance could be subject to a challenge for violating the Public Meetings Law.
“Because of the ramifications involved here, I made the recommendation that none of them attend,” said Wyers.
Ken Maddox, HRVRC president, said it has been a long-standing tradition for his organization to invite officials to the annual meeting and no harm was intended.