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Shifty Politics

Lane County's awkward new lean to the right

Politics, it would seem, is inseparable from process. It’s not what politicians get done; it’s how they do it. 

Or is it? The Board of Lane County Commissioners, in particular the more liberal, anti-sprawl, pro-environment commissioners, has come under fire. Hits to the board have ranged from a timber-funded lawsuit that targeted the more left politicians on the county board and has set a peculiar precedent for what is a public meeting — or a public meeting process — to criticism over how the county will make cuts to its ever-shrinking budget. County efforts to build a more green and sustainable local economy and local energy have also been “sabotaged,” apparently without public process.

The lawsuit focused on process. It alleged that Commissioners Pete Sorenson and Rob Handy, as well as former Commissioner Bill Fleenor, violated public meetings laws in their discussions about the county budget. Coos County Circuit Judge Michael Gillespie, in a controversial ruling, found that Sorenson and Handy had done so, even though the evidence did not show that any three commissioners were even in the same room together talking about the issue. 

Gillespie also found that Commissioner Faye Stewart and former Commissioner Bill Dwyer had met inappropriately, but because the suit, funded by Seneca-Jones Timber Co., did not name them, they were not found in violation or asked to pay thousands as a result of the settlement. The settlement did not require Handy and Sorenson to admit any wrongdoing in the case. 

The suit was criticized as a politically motivated effort to hurt the liberal commissioners, and if it was an effort to hurt the leftward lean of the board as a whole, it worked. Fleenor did not run again for the West Lane commission seat, and Libertarian-turned-Republican Jay Bozievich took the spot in the last election. The current board — Bozievich, Handy, Sorenson, timber family Republican Faye Stewart and former Springfield mayor and one-time Republican congressional hopeful Sid Leiken — is listing to the right. The board and Lane County’s administration is rife with tension.

Many whose employment with the county has been terminated have had difficulty speaking out about what has been going on behind the scenes.

County employees have been asked to sign a “resignation and release agreement,” apparently in exchange for a settlement payment. EW has obtained a copy of one of these agreements. It says, among other things, that the county and the terminated employee “shall not make or publish any statement, orally or in writing, or instigate, assist or participate in the making or publication of any statement that would or could adversely affect, libel, slander or disparage the other, or expose to contempt, or ridicule or cast in a negative light, the other party.”

As the more right-wing board struggles its way through another round of budget woes, it looks like the process of how money is spent, as well as just who is making the decisions about taxpayer money, may once again need to be scrutinized. Almost $50,000 is being spent on a biased social media PR series calling for unions to take cuts. The county spent $5,000 on controversial software the board had not approved, and an opportunity for Lane County to receive $10 million in grants, improve energy efficiency and help low-income residents has been left sitting on the table. 

The commissioners have begun to draft a mission statement and work on long-term goal setting. So will the county begin a process that will get it back on track?

 

Lane County: ‘Working for You’

“Research showed that people don’t really know what Lane County does,” according to public relations firm Cawood Communications. Lane County hired Cawood and branded itself with the slogan “Working for You” to solve that problem. The county started a series of explanatory videos on the county website — from the District Attorney Office’s “Protecting the Victims” to Lane County Waste Management’s “Hazards and Nuisances.” That series was “zeroed out” in the most recent county budget, according to Commissioner Sorenson. 

A lot of things were zeroed out or cut dramatically in the budget process. County employees were laid off; services from animal control to communities in need were threatened. Unions have been asked for concessions to meet a multi-million-dollar budget shortfall. On July 7 the sheriff’s office announced that it would cut 84 jail beds in order to meet county budget requirements. The commissioners did not ask the jail to cut the beds; Lane County Sheriff Tom Turner made the cut without first notifying the board. 

But Lane County found the money to pay almost $50,000 to former news anchor and one time Republican candidate for secretary of state Rick Dancer to make videos about Lane County. Sorenson, who didn’t know about the contract with Dancer or the planned videos, said the board didn’t vote on the money.

According to the Lane Manual, the county administrator can execute “all contracts and agreements not exceeding $100,000 nor three years in length.” Unlike contracts authorized by the board, the county administrator’s contracts do not need to be discussed in a public meeting. 

Commissioner Bozievich said he couldn’t be positive, “but I think that was initiated by the county administrator within her budget.” He said the new series is a continuation of the public outreach of the “Working for You” series (see http://vimeo.com/25829160). 

Commissioner Handy said the previous video series cut out at the recommendation of County Administrator Liane Richardson was similar in cost to the Rick Dancer series, and called the board’s discussion of cutting the award-winning “Working for You” series during budget talks a “charade.” 

Handy said there was “no public process, and without any Budget Committee input this same county administrator grants about the same amount of money to yet another well-known, right-wing friend for a video series designed to persuade the public that union members make too much money and should make concessions to balance Lane County’s budget.”

The new series has a working title of “Your Lane, Your Voice, Your Government,” and according to information from Lane County Public Information Officer Amber Fossen, Dancer was contracted to do 12 videos for $40,800 and six “water coolers” — live-streaming chats — for $6,000, for a total of $46,800. The water coolers will be live panel discussions on major topics. The videos will be available on Vimeo, YouTube and the county’s Facebook page. Fossen said the county contracted with Dancer “last fiscal year, utilizing money saved in county administration.”

In the six-minute video Administrator Richardson, who authorized the expenditure for the series, said “whenever you’re talking about benefits it’s hard, when you talk about health insurance it’s harder.”  

The video takes aim at unions and workers associations, which have been asked to take cuts in health insurance, while employees have been asked to take 15 unpaid furlough days, in order that the county save money. Jim Steiner, council representative for the county’s 680-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local (AFSCME), said those cuts hit the most vulnerable workers at the county, and he questions the choice to try to “balance the budget on the backs on the folks making the least amount of money.” Steiner said that “80 percent of our membership are women. Many are single parents working in order to provide health insurance for their children.”

Richardson and the video go on to place blame on the Endangered Species-listed northern spotted owl for the county’s financial woes.

The first Sorenson and fellow Commissioner Handy heard of the series was after EW found it posted on Bozievich’s Facebook page. The county budget took “hundreds of thousands of hits,” said Sorenson, but within a few days it was “signing an agreement for a video series and has the county administrator talking about her view of what the county should do with the budget.” Sorenson said, “That’s not a really good use of our money.” 

Commissioner Leiken, like Bozievich, was apparently aware of the video series. He responded to posts on Dancer’s Facebook page where he was promoting the video: “Timber revenues is what kept the county in business years ago and I believe past leadership were thinking that either timber harvest or the Secure Rural Schools Act would not run out.” He continued, “United States (is) importing huge amounts of timber from Canada and South America that we should be harvesting here.”

Doug Heiken of Oregon Wild questioned this assumption that logging is the fix for budget woes. “If timber payments did fund the counties, even modest increases in the possible money they could get from timber sales is very small,” Heiken said. “The county funding does not come from timber sales; it hasn’t for 20 years.”

Leiken said, “Earlier in the year we did adopt a social media policy, so clearly this follows within that guideline.”

 

Hopping and leaping  on a Moonshadow

Lane County has begun another difficult process — redistricting. Every 10 years, following the U.S. Census, the county redraws voting districts. This year the process has started under a cloud of suspicion. 

The Oregon secretary of state’s office requires district boundaries to be contiguous, utilize existing geographic or political boundaries, not divide communities of common interest, and be connected by transportation links. Districts must be of equal population. They cannot favor any political party, incumbent elected official or other person and not be “drawn for the purpose of diluting the voting strength of any language or ethnic minority group.”  

Districts these days are redrawn not by hand but with software. The question arises of not only which software will be used, but also whether that software, and the process by which it is chosen, can reflect bias.

Lane County has had issues in the past with “gerrymandering,” a process named after Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts who, in 1812, reluctantly signed into law a bill Republicans forced through the state’s legislature that rearranged district lines to assure them an advantage in the upcoming senatorial election. According to Budget Committee and Redistricting Task Force committee member Scott Bartlett, the commissioners’ districts in the past have been drawn in to reflect bias. He points to a map from the 1991 redistricting that shows the North Eugene commissioner district drawn in such a way it extended all the way to south 18th Avenue. 

Bartlett said in 2001 the district was redrawn to 11th Avenue, which followed the North Eugene High School/ South Eugene High boundary. High schools, Bartlett said, are a community of interest. 

Some political-process watchers have speculated that a more right-leaning County Commission might vote to pull the west Eugene and Whiteaker precincts from the North District and add them to South Eugene, making the North a Republican electoral stronghold by yanking out progressives and racially diverse neighborhoods and census blocks.

The R-G reports that conservative Eugene City Councilor Mike Clark is thinking about running against Handy for his North Eugene seat. Clark’s recent effort to say the Pledge of Allegiance at City Council meetings has been called an attempt to build conservative media attention. Clark did not respond to an EW request for an interview.

Lane County has historically used the nonpartisan Lane Council of Governments (LCOG), and it uses Esri’s ArcGIS (geographic information system) to redistrict. Controversy began when Bozievich suggested the county use Moonshadow Mobile, a Eugene-based internet software company to redistrict.

Clark is vice president of Moonshadow. 

“It bothers me that redistricting process is somehow being linked to the political work being done by candidate Mike Clark,” said Sorenson. He added that it’s important the redistricting process not be tainted by partisan and political tones. 

Bozievich has high praise for Moonshadow; he calls it “the bee’s knees.” He said he has a long history of working with GIS software, and that Moonshadow would replace a process that has become cumbersome. Bozievich said, “Moonshadow allows a layman to draw new polygons for districts and get immediate feedback on what it does to population numbers.” He said it saves money, staff time and “allows for us to run hundreds of scenarios.”

Adding further tempest to the political redistricting teapot was the revelation that Administrator Richardson had authorized $5,000 and already purchased the Moonshadow software. Richardson said, “The county has purchased the software, which would allow us to use it for redistricting if the board chooses to go in that direction.” 

She said the current plan for the use of the software, among other things, is to allow the community to come in and use it to draw districts during one or more open houses; allow the redistricting committee to use it, even if LCOG is selected as the official provider; and to allow the Office of County Counsel to very quickly determine if the “final” districts inadvertently create areas that appear to be disproportionate. “What took months to accomplish could have been done in a day if we had this software,” she said.

Sorenson said he’s “troubled by the involvement of a political candidate,” noting that Clark used Moonshadow in his Eugene City Council campaign, and he’s concerned about the process by which Moonshadow entered into the county’s system. 

 

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Process and politics might be what seems to be holding up Lane County’s chance at $10 million in grants. The county is currently “investigating” grants in its Community and Economic Development Department (CEDD). The issue appears not to be whether the programs are good and will benefit the county, but wording in board orders and, of course, process.

 On May 19, 2010, the board resolved and ordered that it would give an $80,000 contract to Renewable Funding, a group that provides administration, financing and technology services for clean energy programs to hundreds of cities and counties across the nation. 

In the same order, commissioners voted to give a $50,000 contract to social justice advocate and renewable and alternative energy consultant Joe Berney to develop job-creating grants for energy efficiency and renewable energy. The order was part of an effort by the previous board, with the aid of a U.S. Department of Energy grant, to create a strategy to implement energy efficiency, conservation and renewable energy technologies on public buildings, nonprofits and residential buildings. Part of that work was associated with PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) financing. 

According to county documents, while PACE was suspended on the federal level, the CEDD, in consultation with then-county administrator Jeff Spartz, decided to keep working on the energy efficiency program. The board order’s directive was focused on renewable energy and energy efficiency, which PACE called a “recommended strategy.”

Michael McKenzie-Bahr, who in April resigned in an agreement with the county, said, “In the case of contracts in community and economic development, scope of work changes were approved in consultation with the county administrator.”

McKenzie-Bahr added, “I am proud of the work I did assisting local businesses and communities. The county made a large investment in expanding the local green economy.” Among the projects McKenzie-Bahr was working on were efforts to bring a bioenergy park to the county and making grants to popular local sustainable businesses such as $100,000 to Arcimoto electric cars and $100,000 to Ninkasi brewery.

Berney said his work for the county created the opportunity to get up to $10 million in non-county resources. This private capital and grant funds would finance the first year of a residential energy efficiency and solar program to create local jobs and reduce carbon emissions. The multi-year program could expand each year. 

According to county emails, Berney sent a copy of his report to the commissioners and interim CEDD Director Glenda Poling on June 1. As of press time, he had not received a response. 

A recent Register-Guard article looked at the issue, calling it an “investigation” into Lane County’s CEDD and into contracts such as those signed with Berney. Richardson is quoted in the story as saying that “an investigation into McKenzie-Bahr’s actions ‘began to reveal potential issues implicating Commissioners Handy and (Pete) Sorenson.’”

McKenzie-Bahr said, “I do not know why she singled out Commissioner Handy or Sorenson; I interacted with them the same way I interacted with the other commissioners.”

EW obtained a copy of the release agreement that McKenzie-Bahr signed with Lane County. “The investigation into what the county initially labeled ‘misconduct’ has been terminated in regard to the employee,” the document states.

When asked if an investigation into McKenzie-Bahr is continuing, despite the contract stating that the investigation was terminated, Richardson said via email that the R-G reporter “uses the word ‘investigation.’ We are doing an audit of the entire program. I have told him that the investigation and the audit are the same thing and that audit is a better characterization, but investigation keeps showing up in the articles.”

According to the R-G article, Richardson had said, “projects where the (county board) was not asked to give direction, but instead individual commissioners were pulled in and provided private briefings while others had no idea about the project.”

McKenzie-Bahr continued, “I made the commissioners aware, before their vote to award the contracts, that the contracts for Renewable Funding and Joe Berney did not go before the economic development standing committee. This fact can be verified by watching the online video of the board meeting.”

When asked if the board intended to continue work on bringing energy efficiency and renewable energy back to Lane County, Bozievich said, “Frankly I can’t comment a whole lot on that subject because it its under investigation.” But when it comes to focusing on green, sustainable local projects, he said, “As always the economy is about local jobs; we wouldn’t be doing if it wasn’t about the local economy. It kind of goes without saying.” 

Bozievich said while he finds the word green “overused,” he thinks the board will continue “to have an eye for sustainable development.”

Handy said, “Last year, the board passed good public policy to place solar panels on every rooftop possible in Lane County to help promote renewable energy and to save people and businesses money.” But, he continued, “behind the scenes, this policy has been sabotaged.”  Handy said, “Instead of making this shift up-front and at a board meeting, they have worked with the County Administrator Liane Richardson to undermine this policy and destroy the work.”

 Commissioner Handy said, “I want there to be transparency about this matter so that the public has all the possible information and can see these political shenanigans for what they are.”