Communities, Front Page, Oakridge/Westfir

Budget committee member files ethics complaints against Oakridge city councilors Bjarnson, Hollett

By DOUG BATES/Editor/The Herald — A member of the Oakridge City Budget Committee has filed complaints with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, alleging that two Oakridge city council members may have violated state ethics law.

The complaints were filed by Priscilla Davidson, a budget committee member, against councilors Melissa Bjarnson and Christina Hollett. Davidson’s complaints question whether it was lawful for the two councilors, who also are on the budget committee, to vote May 19 on a proposal to cut the city fund for stipend pay, because both women are EMTs (emergency medical technicians) who receive such pay.

Both Bjarnson and Hollett voted against cutting stipend pay at the May 19 meeting. So did a third EMT on the budget committee, April Allen. Davidson mentions that in her formal complaints but says she did not file a complaint against Allen because the state’s complaint form requires contact information that Davidson did not have for Allen.

The 13-member city committee struggled for weeks this spring with a budget proposal that projected a $608,000 deficit in Oakridge’s fire and ambulance fund. Near the end of the contentious May 19 meeting, committee members voted 7-to-6 to recommend to the council a 2021-22 budget that would impose a three-year, $31-a-month fee — added to all water bills — to cover that deficit. The committee also narrowly passed a 50 percent reduction in the line item for stipends paid to EMTs and other fire department volunteers.

That means the city’s pot of money for stipends would be cut in half if the council adopts the committee’s budget recommendations. The $100 stipends themselves wouldn’t necessarily be reduced, although that remains a possibility, but there would be only half as many of them available for EMTs, so they almost certainly would be facing a cutback in compensation.

Bjarnson, Hollett and Allen, all of whom receive stipend payments, voted against the decrease despite admonitions from Davidson and another committee member, Kevin Gobelman. Davidson’s complaints say that Bjarnson received stipends totaling $4,874 in 2019 and $735 in 2020, Hollett received $10,159 in 2020 and Allen collected $3,935 in 2020.

“They are all directly benefitting financially, and they all voted on the stipend pay,” Davidson says in her complaints. “I would like to know if this is a potential conflict or an actual conflict and if they are able to vote on something that directly benefits them.”

Bjarnson and Hollett have not responded to The Herald’s request for comment on the issue.

Ronald Bersin, executive director of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, responded by letter to Davidson’s complaints on May 21, the day after she filed them. He said a preliminary review has been opened to determine whether the two councilors violated ORS Chapter 244. The law requires the confidential review to be completed within 30 days.

“A staff report will be prepared at the conclusion of the preliminary review in each case cited above and will be considered by the commission in executive session at a future meeting,” Bersin wrote. “If a finding of cause is not made, the matter will be dismissed. If cause is found, an investigation will be conducted.

“In either instance, all information concerning this matter will then become available to the public.”

Under the commission’s current interpretation of Oregon’s ethics laws, public officials may not vote on or even deliberate on matters in which they have an actual conflict of interest.

Five of the 13 members of the Oakridge City Budget Committee have potential conflicts because they or their spouses receive pay from the city. That includes Davidson, whose husband is an Oakridge police officer.

All five routinely declare their potential conflicts of interest at the start of each meeting. Davidson maintains that when the issue of stipend pay came up on May 19, the potential conflicts of Bjarnson, Hollett and Allen became actual conflicts, and they should have abstained from discussing or voting on the motion to reduce the fund for stipend pay.

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