Mayor, Riverkeeper chief open riparian rift

September 10, 2005

The City of Hood River has asked the Columbia Riverkeeper board of directors for a meeting to discuss the political activism of its attorney.

That action was taken after Brent Foster, who recently assumed the role of Riverkeeper’s executive director, inferred support, via a mass e-mail, for a possible recall movement against Mayor Linda Rouches. Foster challenged her leadership regarding the city’s new plan to meet state Goal 5 rules for riparian protection along the waterfront. He has been outspoken in his opinion that officials should have deferred to a proposal backed by citizen activists that would have banned most development near the shoreline.

“Over the course of the past year, Mr. Foster has attacked the city staff and members of the council during public testimony and via letters to your constituency and supporters. The latest, more concerning, letter suggests that I and/or the council should be recalled for the council’s decision in amending the Goal 5 ordinance. The amendments actually increased restrictions providing for greater riparian protection,” wrote Rouches in the Sept. 1 letter to Laurence Cotton, president of the Riverkeeper board.

“If you agree with and have authorized Mr. Foster to take the positions he has, then I offer my apologies. On the other hand, if you are not sure, then I would invite you to meet with me and other members of the city council,” Rouches continued.

Questions have also arisen among local officials over whether Foster’s political stance has violated federal protocol for nonprofit groups. Earlier this year he appeared to be leading the charge for Measure 14-22, a referendum to overturn the city’s original Goal 5 plan.

“Generally speaking, an organization that qualifies for tax exempt status under 501C3 of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code is prohibited from participating in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office,” said Bill Steiner, IRS spokesperson.

“Supporting or opposing public initiatives are generally considered voter education and not prohibited, but, as always, would depend on the facts and circumstances of each case,” he said.

According to Steiner, Foster does not appear to have crossed any legal lines in his reference to the mayoral recall. Steiner said the attorney could face sanctions if he spearheaded the campaign against her or any other elected official.

Columbia Riverkeeper’s mission is to restore and protect water quality from the headwaters of the river to the Pacific Ocean. On Friday morning, Foster said he was properly fulfilling his role based on that mission. He said Riverkeeper had not yet received the letter from Rouches so he could not comment on its content. However, he was hopeful that it would open up further discussion about waterfront protection.

“As a nonprofit group, Columbia Riverkeeper has no opinion on whether a recall of the mayor would be appropriate. I am not surprised the IRA agrees the e-mail I sent did not cross any political lines. But the claim it did should not distract anyone from the fact the mayor and council majority support development to the water’s edge when most of Hood River voters do not,” he said.

Last winter, Foster strongly advocated for a referendum sponsored by the Preserve the Waterfront political action committee. Measure 14-22 was brought before 3,381 city voters in a special election on March 8 and about 36 percent of the ballots were returned. The vote was 747 in favor of overturning the existing Goal 5 rules to 465 opposed.

Within days after the measure’s passage, the Attorney General’s office rendered the opinion that the vote was illegal. The state agency decreed that land-use regulations had to be implemented through a statutory process and could not be circumvented by the electorate.

Foster then contended that city officials should still defer to the message by their constituents. When they did not, he rallied supporters of a broad swath of protection that prohibited most ground-disturbing activities along the river’s edge.

“The mayor’s blatant decision to ignore the 61 percent of voters who overturned the council’s last attempt to exempt the port from the minimum 75-foot state setback requirement and those who voted to make the waterfront a park has a number of people asking if this is such an extreme failure to represent the will of voters that a potential recall campaign is warranted,” stated Foster’s Aug. 16 e-mail.

Rouches said the city would like the opportunity to explain to Riverkeeper that the new Goal 5 regulations have actually increased some restrictions. For example, a 100-foot setback has been imposed along the Hood River in place of the previous 75-foot setback.

“It’s absurd to suggest that I, or anyone on the council, would do anything to harm the rivers. I believe we, and Columbia Riverkeeper, are working toward a common goal,” she said.

Foster said Riverkeeper was “severely disappointed” with the direction taken by the city council regarding Goal 5 but anticipates a joint meeting.

“We welcome it. We think it would be a positive step forward if it’s any sign that the city is going to be more concerned about the actions the people expect it to take in terms of protecting the river,” said Foster.

In August, the city searched for a “compromise” between two disparate plans for natural resource protection. Riverkeeper supported a planning commission recommendation for a 100-foot uniform setback across the length of the waterfront. The Port of Hood River, as the landowner, wanted to retain the custom plan with a 50 foot setback between the Event Site and the Hook. Under that plan, any construction that occurred within the next 25 feet was required to have three times the allowable size in riparian enhancement.

The city, port and state Department of Land Conservation and Development had worked together to design the specialized plan, since much of the waterfront was heavily used by recreationists and mostly made up of rip-rap banks and fill material. The three agencies concurred that a custom approach was more thorough since it used a riparian inventory for protection instead of taking a “blanket” approach.

For example, the decision was made, and later reconfirmed, to minimize protection at the Marina and Boat Basin because these areas were subjected to a high level of human activity and had little vegetation beyond noxious plants and weeds.

Rouches said the Riverkeeper board did not testify at any of the public hearings regarding Goal 5 since the decision-making process began three years ago. She believes that a meeting between the two entities can resolve any outstanding issues.

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