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Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Blood and guts at Soil and Water

I must admit, I have no clue about the West Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District. I think it's a governmental body that's supposed to help folks in Portland west of the Multnomah River keep an eye on their part of the planet. Its website is here. Apparently it's run by a seven-member board of directors, all publicly elected -- five from districts and two at large.

One of the at-large directors is Liz Callison (left). Her bio is here. She's been writing me the last couple of days (at least, someone's signing her name) to protest action that she says the majority of the board is going to take at its meeting tonight -- at the Sauvie Island Grange, no less. Apparently the Zone 5 director's position is vacant, and the board is about to fill the vacancy by appointing one of the district's several associate directors, Terri Preeg Riggsby (right), to the position. (Preeg Riggsby's bio's on the same page as Callison's -- just scroll down. Among her life experiences is a stint as an intern at the Portland Development Commission and work with River Renaissance project. She was endorsed in a recent election by Portland City Council candidate Amanda Fritz.)

Callison alleges that the appointment is improper, and she's been firing off missives to the Oregon Secretary of State in protest. According to Callison, Preeg Riggsby is a protege of board chair Brian Lightcap, and she opines that Lightcap and the other directors "sneakily gerrymandered district zones to ensure that only one person out of a hundred thousand was eligible for the Zone 5 position under the state's convoluted rules for conservation districts: Terry Preeg Riggsby." Callison also says that "the board has intentionally avoided giving adequate, timely notice of the vacancy."

Not everybody who lives in the district is eligible to be a director. It looks as though you have to be a large landowner, most likely a farmer or a timber owner, or else serve as an associate director for at least a year:

Zone directors must own or manage 10 or more acres of land in the district, be involved in the active management of the property, reside within the boundaries of the district and be registered voters. Zone directors may either reside within the zone that is represented or own or manage 10 or more acres within the zone that is represented and be involved in the active management of the property. An individual may also serve as a zone director when the individual, in lieu of the other requirements specified in this subsection, resides within the zone that is represented and indicates an interest in natural resource conservation as demonstrated by serving at least one year as a director or associate director of a district and having a conservation plan that is approved by the district.
Callison's got some other beefs as well. In a letter that she says she's sending to the Secretary of State's office, she writes:
As a special district, West Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District should provide for fair and open public participation but it seems to be operating more like a private club. Small units of government such as conservation districts are the building blocks of our legislative system -- besides being the conduit for significant state and federal funds -- and they were intended to be overseen by fairly-elected citizens.

An additional problem is that in redrawing the sub-district boundaries, the board chairman's ensured that his property now extends into two different sub-districts, meaning that if a strong opponent should happen to surface in one sub-district he can simply run in the other.

Well, golly, we got us a little rhubarb going here, folks. I hope Lightcap and Preeg Riggsby will write in to give us their side of all this. Meanwhile, if you hear fireworks coming from Sauvie's tonight, you know what it is.

Comments (20)

You gotta watch these districts like a hawk, since they have the ability to place property tax measures (and who knows what else) on the ballot. The East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District did just that in Nov 2004 and almost no one noticed, perhaps because they choose a deceptive ballot title: East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District Permanent Rate Limit

Sounds like we get to limit their tax? Well, we do, sort of: the trick, of course, was that there was NO TAX to limit before this measure created a new property tax, complete with limit. The word “tax” was never even mentioned and “property” was only mentioned once, and that was in the last paragraph of the ballot title.

Xander Patterson wrote a magnificent argument in favor of the tax without mentioning either “tax” or “property” anywhere in his whole statement, only a hint of a tax in the last paragraph. (same link as above - scroll down)

BTW: Xander Patterson filed to collect signatures to run for Multnomah County Commissioner.

Beware obscure little government bodies - they can be slimy too.


Mr Bog - I thought you would be more interested in opining on Wilsonville and now Tualatin deciding not to buy inflated BullRun water.

I feel bad that Mr Leonard may have to now compete when he prices the water (they usually charge non-Portland users more for the same water.)

"To overcome the distrust of government"

I love how Xander used these words in an attempt to lul the voters into a false sense of security as he was activly helping the conservation district to pick the pockets of an unsuspecting public.
I don't trust people like this any farther than I can throw them.

Another over looked Silent Snake that will soon jump-up and bite us where it hurts, are all these 'Designated Water Shed' areas that are now showing themselves across the state with high dollar 'multi-color reflective' signage. Golly, those are especially pretty at night.

In that everything runs down hill we just might find ourselves being declared non-native and banned from our residence area.

Till then you might keep the permit for your potted Begonia handy and with that the fertilizer log including the purchase receipts?

I know Liz and have been to some of the board meetings over the last five years or so where I have witnessed the fireworks between Callison and Lightcap-some of the best theatre in town. But there are real issues and problems centering around manipulating the directorate: the board secretary taking a cue from Lightcap to doctor meeting minutes, among them. And people who are not easily manipulated are not considered for associate directorships; I know this from personal experience seeking one: I wouldn't buy Lightcap's line that Callison is "nasty" for blowing the whistle on the procedure-or lack thereof-out there. And something the post doesn't mention is that Preeg-Rigsby lost a popular election for a board position to Callison in 2004. I would go by the record rather than what Amanda Fritz says.

Perhaps I should clarify my opinion: Liz is not causing the problems at the district; she is trying to solve them. And like many other good citizen volunteers and activists, it is advantageous to those in power to attempt to cast her as a troublemaker rather than the wonderful dedicated troubleshooter she really is.

C'mon Cynthia (or whomever is following this), don't hold out on us - what happened at the board meeting last night? Enquiring minds want to know....

"Larry" is inquiring about the results of last night's West Mult. SWCD board meeting..("Cynthia" was not an attendee.)
I will be glad to provide this Blog a summary late tonight--I have a long day of classes stretching before me today.
Two other citizens who did attend last night's meeting, Chris and Anne-Marie, may send in their observations as well. Thanks for asking.

Readers, I know you're on the edge of your seats, but due to midterm pressures at school, the promised recap of the West Multnomah soap opera will have to wait till tomorrow afternoon.

Here's a strong hint though: there's now more fodder for the state elections division complaint.

Also, one of the other witnesses at the meeting just contacted me to say she'll be blogging in with her observations tomorrow. And the notorious scourge of sub rosa bureaucratic proceedings, Mr. J-K, videotaped the meeting; the plan is to play it on cable access.

Back momentarily to the meeting: last night's key vote may turn out to be invalid...
No kidding, a defunct director from Sauvies Island resuscitated himself just long enough to cast a vote for Preeg Riggsby.
But will the vote be deemed invalid since it included a member that resigned? Only your Secretary of State can say for sure...

What does not cease to amaze is why a person whom the public had squashed in the last election by a 2:1 vote want to cadge the position anyway...
Any theories on that?

I attended WM-SWCD's January and February meetings, concerned they were about to fill their southwest Portland vacancy without public notice or involvement. I also wanted the SWCD to assist our neighborhood in preserving a local greenspace, with a conservation easement. (Landowner was enthusiastic but cost was prohibitive.)

Director Liz Callison said new state laws allow SWCD'S to fund and maintain conservation easements. SWCD'S can also administer funds for restoration of water quality, wildlife habitat, and purchase and maintain riparian green space.

Living near trashed streams like Vermont Creek, I thought the SWCD could have been a great community resource and partner.

Ignoring the conservation easement questions, four of the directors, including one voting via phone from his miniature cow farm in California, tried to appoint their protege to be the representative for southwest Portland. That action was stopped in January, but back on the agenda again in February.


I suppose it's not so surprising that Jim and Joanne could think that the East Mutlnomah Soil and Water Conservation District property tax could have actually been a tax cut, even though the summary and the argument in favor speak loudly of the good things we can do with the money. The sort of truly slick politicians they might be inclined to support consistently promise to increase services and cut taxes, as if there truly were a free lunch.

This measure passed with 63% of the vote. I doubt it passed because voters were confused. Other conservation districts have put measures on the ballot with identical titles. Some have passed, some have failed. The truth is the good people of Multnomah County are willing to pay taxes when they know they are going to good purposes, such as protecting the environment.

Let me be really clear: as county commissioner, my highest priority will be to find adequate funding for our vital public services, like schools and health care, which are now suffering the death of a thousand cuts. We can do it if the super rich and big corporations whom federal and state government have been giving huge irresponsible tax cuts for 25 years pay thier fair share. see www.votexander.org

Xander Patterson at February 9, 2006 05:03 PM I suppose it's not so surprising that Jim and Joanne could think that the East Mutlnomah Soil and Water Conservation District property tax could have actually been a tax cut. . .
JK: Who said anything about OURSELVES not catching your deception? Your falsely accusing us of not noticing your trick reflects badly on your reading ability: East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District Permanent Rate Limit Note the words “Rate Limit”. How do you expect people to vote for you if don’t even understand that this looks like a tax limitation?


A bit of clarification: East Multnomah SWCD is a completely different agency from West Multnomah SWCD. (Like Gresham is a different city from Beaverton)

SWCD's are established throughout Oregon as "special districts."
Enabled under specific state laws, their big-brother bureaucracy is the Oregon Department of Agriculture, though they can receive and administer funds from other state and federal agencies or private foundations, as well.

Other local examples of special district governments are Metro and the Port of Portland-- which also have taxing-authority.
The SWCD's and Metro have publicly elected boards, while Port of Portland commissioners are appointed by the governor.

SWCD's can directly refer items to the electorate. A popular misconception exists about environmental protection and restoration: SWCD's certainly have the authority to ask voters to approve legislation to improve water quality and fish and wildlife habitat, but they typically do not.
Guess why?

The preceding blogs regarding tax base for East Mult. SWCD are somewhat off-topic, since the topic was the question of West Mult. SWCD's recent elections-rigging/gerrymandering.

There is one common thread, however, and that is the question of a local tax base. Last year East Mult. SWCD referred the question of a tax base to the voters, as Xander and JK stated, but West Mult. SWCD does not have a tax base and is only in the discussion phase.
At present there are only 3 or 4 conservation districts in the state which have tax bases: such as Yamhill SWCD, Marion SWCD and now East Mult. SWCD.

I would like to know how a government agency, whether it's small or large, could allow voting by a defunct board member, as mentioned above.

What about the SWCD zone that was remapped to stop all but one favored board appointee from being able to fill it?

Where is the fair and open elections process that people are led to expect?

If an SWCD rigs its elections process, what other government groups are doing it?

Isn't there any state or court system oversight on these types of abuses of the public trust?

Finally, is it true that West Multnomah SWCD's staff is running for a state legislative seat in North Portland, while an East Mult. SWCD board member says he's running for county commissioner? What does this fiasco say about these individuals' competence?

Private Club… At the Feb. 7 meeting, Lightcap, chairman, shoo’d in Terri Preeg Riggsby to a board seat. The split decision counted a defunct director’s vote.
Also unsavory: southwest community newspapers hadn’t advertised the vacancy. Zone 5's gerrymandered, southwest Portland community left in the dark, couldn't participate in the process.
Zone 5 is now ‘rigged’ to have no eligible individuals—except board appointees--perpetually.
Additionally, Lightcap election-proofed himself: his tree farm is now mapped so it lies in two zones.

Very few people really pay attention to these elected bodies like the West Multnomah SWCD, and this allows most of the members to get away with a lot of questionable activities. Looks like this latest addition to the board is yet another example of the exclusive nature of those who've dominated it for some time (Lightcap being on for a quarter century so far), with friends and associates being tapped and any outsider getting on the board being a mere accident.

My own experience with this board was a few years ago when I filed a Public Records Request in order to get information regarding grant money being given to board members themselves. To date my request has been ignored by those dominating the board (such as Sowder, Lightcap etc), save for a note informing me that I couldn't see this information.

Bob Tiernan

Bob's: "Very few people really pay attention to these elected bodies like the West Multnomah SWCD..." is just too true.

The news media triumvirate won't cover general elections to the four metro-area SWCDs, much less report on the elected officials' good, or bad, behavior.

A little gerrymandering and elections rigging?? No problem. News blackout. All under the radar.

So many Portlanders think of themselves as environmentally savvy.
So why do they continue to depend on municipal sewer bureaus to restore and protect the Willamette River, local streams, water quality and wildlife habitat, when state-constituted SWCDs should be performing this role under the law...and a whole lot more.

Bob Tiernan hits the subject square on the head when he says “Very few people really pay attention to these elected bodies like the [WMSWCD], and this allows most of the members to get away with a lot of questionable activities.”

It’s too true that no one pays attention, and given the subject matter (our soil and water!!!) maybe this is something we should actually pay attention to. These little elected boards are important. And an ignorant electorate gets screwed.

"Here is a paraphrase of a comment I sent to the Seretary of State last week. I encourage anyone else who supports free and open elections to do likewise.

I'm not an attorney but here is what i think about the way the West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation Board is currently handling their director positions.
If it's not illegal it ought to be.
I live in Zone 5 subdistrict. Our community now has no chance of having equal representation because no private individual can run for this position in an election. Due to the new re-zoning (for which there was no public notification), there is NOT ONE private landowner wo owns or manages 10 acres of land in Zone 5. This should be a red flag to any observer. Zone 5 has become a DUMMY position that this board can manipulate however it wants to..."

As a Clackamas county resident with riverfront property I became involved with the formation of the Clackamas River Basin Council, hoping CRBC would become a clearing house for the many activities threatening the health of the river. However, CRBC is strictly advisory and, like county extension agencies, has no regulatory powers. .

I am familiar with some regulatory agencies, such as WES (Water Environmental Services) and ODEQ (Oregon Dept. of Environmental Quality). Unfortunately, we have learned from experience that neither of those agencies can be counted on to protect either the scenic or wildlife habitat qualities of the Clackamas watershed.

Perhaps a SWCD might be a better place for me to get involved because this is a locally elected group that might have some ability to be help private landowners.

I am concerned that previous blogs say some members of West Multnomah SWCD managed to “gerrymander” that district and “rig” their elections process . Is that legal? I would hope any district with regulatory powers would be more ethical than that.

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