By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

N-R appeals county's public record denial

A contentious March 12 hearing on a challenge to the county planning commission’s recent expansion approval included allegations that County Commissioner Allen Springer had engaged in inappropriate ex parte contact with Waste Management Inc., the Houston-based company that owns Riverbend.

In February, the McMinnville City Council asked Springer to recuse himself, saying it did not believe he could be impartial. That led to additional calls from the public for recusal, and to a News-Register inquiry that brought to light pervasive behind-the-scenes contact between Springer and Waste Management in recent months.

Springer summarily rejected the recusal demands. He characterized the frequent contacts uncovered by the paper as a necessary part of his job as the commission’s liaison for economic development.

On March 16, the News-Register followed up with a request for all communications County Counsel Christian Boenisch and Assistant County Counsel Todd Sadlo might have had with commissioners on the ex parte contact issue since Jan. 1.

County Administrator Laura Tschabold, who was out of the office on Monday, sent an e-mail the following day stating, “I’ve received your public records request and am working on it with Christian.”

That same day, the Tuesday of March 17, Sadlo sent the News-Register a memo he had apparently just drawn up on ex parte contact and had entered into the official landfill hearing record. It carried a March 17 date.

Asked whether that submission had been made in response to the records request, Sadlo responded by saying he had provided the memo “due to your interest in the issue,” but that “providing the memo was not in response to your records request, so I would not make any assumptions about that.”

When the newspaper sent a follow-up inquiry March 20, Tschabold replied, “I was planning on discussing it with Christian today, but he is out ill so we will not be in touch until next week.”

An inquiry to Tschabold on Monday, asking whether a response would be forthcoming in time for a story being prepared for Tuesday publication, drew this reply: “I don’t know if we will have an answer, as we have been in meetings all day.”

At 5:25 p.m., too late to make the Tuesday edition’s 5 p.m. deadline, Tschabold notified the paper: “I have just heard from Christian that the records you have requested are confidential communications protected by the attorney-client privilege, ORS 40.225. Therefore, the communications are not subject to disclosure under the Oregon public records law pursuant to ORS 192.502(9)(a).”

Bladine argued in his appeal, filed with Yamhill County District Attorney Brad Berry, that the memo Sadlo placed in the public record “is of a legal-advice nature, such as we might expect to see from other previous documents that have been withheld based on a claim of ‘attorney client privilege.’

“Its date of March 17, a day after our original request, gives the impression that our request may have triggered the creation of that document. That impression relates in part to our appeal.”

Bladine argued, “The public has a right to know whether previous analysis and advice provided to commissioners was consistent with the March 17 memo. ... Government records that provide evidence of how public officials perform their duties should not be hidden from the public on the basis of that claim without a comprehensive and narrowly defined interpretation of ‘attorney-client privilege.’ To do otherwise would do severe damage to public confidence in government.”

Berry has given the county five days to respond. He notified both parties that he will then allow Bladine an opportunity to submit a rebuttal response before making a decision.

 

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