A settlement has been reached in a case regarding an ethics complaint filed in 2017 against the Union City Council by former Union City Administrator Sandra Patterson.
The Oregon Government Ethics Commission has approved a negotiated settlement in the case. In 2017, Patterson filed a complaint in which she alleged the Union City Council violated Oregon’s public meetings law.
Under the terms of the settlement, Leonard Flint, Union’s mayor since January 2017, and the six people who were members of the city council in June 2017 received “a letter of education” from the Oregon Government Ethics Commission explaining the statute that appeared to have been violated and how it can best be followed. The councilors who received the letter were Randy Knop, Jay Blackburn, Matt Later, John Farmer, Walt Brookshire and Susan Hawkins. All but Knop are still members of the city council.
“I’m glad that the Ethics Commission will require them to receive training (via a letter of education),” Patterson said.
The former city administrator, who still lives in Union, would like her ethics complaint to result in Union’s city government taking a closer look at Oregon’s public meetings law.
“I hope this will bring light to the regulation and that people will want to learn more about it,” she said.
Patterson, in her complaint, said on June 15, 2017, an executive session was conducted in which a law was violated because of a procedural error. The Ethics Commission found a violation possibly occurred when the severance package for an employee who had resigned may have been unlawfully discussed during the executive session.
The meeting was conducted just two days after Patterson indicated she planned to step down in a month as Union’s city administrator after a 12-year tenure. The months following this announcement was a controversial and cloudy period in Union’s history.
In a written statement about her resignation provided to The Observer in the summer of 2017, Patterson said, “I provided the notice (of resignation) based on concerns about potential unethical actions taken by third party(s) and which are outside my control.” But after consulting with her attorney, she formally retracted her decision in a letter dated June 15, 2017. That same day, however, the city council met in executive session and agreed via consensus to accept the terms of Patterson’s resignation.
The Ethics Commission wrote in its March 7, 2019, Stipulated Final Order that the June 15, 2017, meeting may have violated law because severance pay is not a topic permitted for discussion in an executive session under the statues cited in an announcement advertising the meeting.
“Discussion of the resignation of a city employee and the severance package to be offered to the employee is not a topic authorized for discussion in an executive session under ORS 192.660(2)(a), 192.660(2)(f) or 192.660(h),” the Ethics Commission wrote.
The commission also wrote in its Stipulated Final Order that discussion of this topic in the June 15, 2017, executive session would constitute one violation of ORS 192.660. The Stipulated Final Order said state law authorizes the commission to assess civil penalties of up to $1,000 for such a violation. There is no chance of a fine being assessed because of the settlement.
Flint said that he agreed to a settlement because continuing the process would have meant the City of Union would have had to spend additional money on legal fees.
The Oregon Ethics Commission began an investigation into Patterson’s ethics complaint after conducting its preliminary review. The results of the preliminary review were evaluated by the commission, and on Nov. 17, 2017, it voted to launch an investigation.
The investigation was later put on hold when Patterson and the Union City Council agreed to begin negotiating a settlement.
The mayor also said it is important for people to realize that the members of Union’s city council are not legal experts.
“We are laymen,” Flint said.
Had a settlement not been reached, the Ethics Commission would have completed its investigation, after which the case would have been dismissed or a hearing would have been conducted before an administrative law judge, according to an Oregon Ethics Commission staff member.
Flint said the process the city council has gone through as a result of the ethics complaint has been informative and will prove beneficial as the council moves forward.