PROPERLY AND CEREMONIOUSLY DISPOSING of old and worn American flags, by burning them in the barbecue pit at the Clatskanie City Park were members of Boy Scout Troop 241, assisted by the Clatskanie American Legion Post 68 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2994. The ceremony was held on the evening of Flag Day, Saturday, June 14. Chief Photo by Deborah Steele Hazen
by Deborah Steele Hazen
The Special Districts Association of Oregon (SDAO), the liability insurance carrier for the Clatskanie People’s Utility District (PUD), has settled a lawsuit with two former PUD employees.
The SDAO settled a lawsuit filed by Gail Rakitnich and Elisha Shulda for a total of $1.3 million – $650,000 each, including attorneys’ fees.
The settlement does not include any acknowledgement of wrong-doing on the part of the Clatskanie PUD.
The federal complaint filed by Rakitnich and Shulda claimed the PUD was liable for sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation.
The sexual harassment issue stemmed from actions by former PUD power manager Joe Taffe, who resigned in January 2012, after a second set of complaints about Taffe was brought to the PUD administration. The first complaint to former PUD General Manager Greg Booth in 2011 resulted in Taffe being given a formal reprimand. After his resignation in early 2012, Taffe worked under contract out of his home for approximately six months, completing some work for the PUD.
Taffe was subsequently charged by the Columbia County District Attorney’s office, and pleaded guilty to two counts of harassment for offensive physical contact and was ordered to have no contact with Shulda, Rakitnich, Tamela Keith and Sarah Blodgett. He was sentenced to three years of probation on the misdemeanor charges.
Shulda and Rakitnich also say that they experienced discrimination and retaliation from the PUD management.
However, the PUD contends that Rakitnich and Shulda – and the four other former employees who have filed lawsuits (Keith, Blodgett, Ray Lindsey and Becky Rakoz) – were terminated “for cause” related primarily to the inappropriate use of PUD e-mail and cellphones, as well as other policy violations.
The transcripts of the e-mails and cellphone texts in question are public records, a portion of which have been obtained by The Chief. The transcripts have not been published by The Chief in an effort to avoid further embarrassment or damage to the reputations of the various parties involved, as well as uninvolved PUD staff members who were maligned in the texts and emails.
Rakitnich was offered a “last chance” agreement related to insubordination and inappropriate communication. She did not sign the agreement and failed to return to work in early 2013. Rakitnich contends that the conditions of continued employment discussed in that meeting were tantamount to termination.
Shulda’s employment with the PUD was terminated in 2013, along with Keith, Lindsay, Blodgett and Rakoz. All of them were also given the opportunity to acknowledge the behavior and state that it would cease, but chose to accept the loss of their jobs instead. They subsequently filed lawsuits.
The lawsuits filed by former PUD employees Lindsay, Blodgett and Rakoz are currently in the “discovery” phase, while depositions are being taken in the case of Keith.
Current PUD General Manager Marc Farmer emphasized that “at this point, because the SDAO is the insurer covering the defense against these complaints, they are also the ones who are making the decisions regarding the settlements. It’s really not in the PUD’s hands. They (the SDAO) are deciding whether it goes to litigation or we settle.”
The majority of the cost of the settlement will be paid by the insurance company. However, the agreement did stipulate that a total of $150,000 ($75,000 each for Rakitnich and Shulda) would come directly from the Clatskanie PUD. Farmer told The Chief that the SDAO will pay that amount up front, and the PUD will repay it over a period of five years at approximately $2500 per month. That amount will not have a significant impact on the PUD’s approximately $50 million budget per year, and will not require a rate adjustment, Farmer said.
The PUD’s insurance agent, Jeff Griffin of WHA Insurance, reported to the PUD board in January that the district’s liability insurance premium had increased from about $23,000 per year to about $39,000 per year because of the lawsuits.
“My goal is to get these issues settled,” Farmer said. “We need to stop the mental, emotional and financial strain that it puts on everyone.”
“We can’t change what happened,” he continued. “It’s time to focus on learning lessons, and moving forward.”
by Adam J. Wehrley
Columbia County commissioners Earl Fisher and Henry Heimuller held a budget hearing Thursday, June 12, at the Clatskanie City Hall to answer public comments and questions regarding the county’s 2014-15 budget prior to its approval later this month.
County finance director Jennifer Cuellar noted that the overall budget had been prepared prior to the passage of the jail operating levy passed by voters in May. The projected $2,287,572 in levy funds will be included in a budget supplement, bringing the county’s total 2014-15 budget to $49,000,853.
Levy revenues will be monitored through a separate fund overseen by a committee of Columbia County residents (see seperate story). In addition to levy funds, the jail will be supported by $1.4 million from the general fund which would have been used to house prisoners out of county and for related transportation had the levy failed.
Of this amount, $9.1 million is expected from property taxes, $20.1 million from state and federal grants and allocations. Beginning fund balances and working capital to start the year are budgeted at $8.9 million. Fees, licenses, fines and assessments will bring in an estimated $5.9 million.
The bulk of the revenues are earmarked for specific departments and programs. The county’s unrestricted funds amount to approximately $9.8 million.
After Cuellar explained changes to the budget resulting from the jail levy, she noted the loss of $500,000 in O&C funds which western Oregon counties received for many years to make up for the loss of timber revenues. These revenues peaked at $2 million.
The rising costs of the public employees retirement system (PERS) continues to be a variable with pending litigation determining the eventual costs to the county.
Cueller reported that property tax revenues are projected to rise 2.9 percent
Clatskanie Mayor Diane Pohl asked the commissioners to look at reclassifying small wood lots which do not meet state prime forest land standards.
Mayor Pohl pointed out that 91 percent of the county is classified as either forest or agricultural land. She referred to the county as, “Handicapped by resource land, leaving nine percent to fund the county.”
Importance of Industrial Valuation
Commissioner Fisher stated that the total tax assessment of the county is $4.4 billion dollars. He noted the importance of industrial growth in areas like Port Westward, particularly a $1.8 billion methanol plant proposed by NW Innovation Works and investments by Portland General Electric and Global Partners which are nearing completion.
Fisher said these investments could increase the county’s tax base by 50 percent. “Coffee shops and antique store won’t do it. We need industrial development,” added Fisher.
As the discussion moved towards apparent anti-development policies on the state level, Fisher said, “There is no straight line in this state, We’re open for business, just don’t come here.”
Commissioner Heimuller outlined several cost-saving efforts the county has undertaken and noted the budget cuts have forced the county to reduce its staff by 40 employees since he took office.
Many audience members including Mayor Pohl favored investigating policing districts within the county corresponding to ambulance and fire districts to cover both rural and municipal areas.
Another budget hearing adding the jail levy funds was scheduled for Wednesday, June 18, at the county courthouse in St Helens.
The commission must resolve to adopt the budget by June 30.
by Adam J. Wehrley
Controversy continues to be stirred by supporters of a Rainier Junior/Senior High School (RJSHS) recent graduate with a long history of disruptive behavior, who was suspended in late May for impeding a bullying investigation and using inappropriate language towards staff.
Nayt Taylor, his family and supporters attended the Rainier School District’s (RSD) business meeting Monday, June 16, followed by camera crews from Portland television stations.
Taylor, who graduated from RJSHS on June 7, has rallied support through social media posts claiming he was suspended for supporting a student who was being bullied.
School records, released by Taylor’s parents, show a history of disruptive behavior, arguing with school staff and swearing.
Principal Graden Blue’s notes from the incident on May 27, during which Taylor was suspended, indicate that Taylor was swearing at and deriding staff when Blue arrived.
Taylor accused Blue and staff of not addressing the bullying of his friend. Blue responded that the counseling staff was addressing the issue.
Following an executive session Monday night, in which the incident was reviewed, RSD board chair Sean Clark read a statement from the board regarding the staff’s response. The statement reads:
“The Rainier School District Board has reviewed discipline records and events surrounding May 30, and they have found the staff of the schools acted appropriately. Student mental health needs were attended to and bullying was dealt with according to policy and best practice. Despite this, district staff was themselves slandered and libeled in person and on social media by students and community members who did not have the whole story and perpetuated untruth.
“The board understands the importance of addressing bullying and suicide prevention, and there are policies and procedures already in place that address these important issues. If a student or individual needs support concerning suicide prevention, the district has and will continue in all cases to offer proper assistance to that individual, but the details of the district’s actions/intervention are always kept confidential.
“When an individual feels that the system hasn’t worked and that the district’s policies or procedures have not been followed, they have the ability to file a formal complaint, as per policy, in order to seek action. Throughout all the events that have happened over the past few weeks, there have been no formal complaints filed with the district.
“The school board stands behind the actions of its staff.
Federal and state privacy laws prevent RSD staff from addressing questions regarding counseling given to the bullied student Taylor was supporting or any disciplinary actions towards students who were bullying him.
Student protests following Taylor’s suspension disrupted RJSHS classes on Friday, May 30. Columbia County Sheriff’s Office dispatch logs show five calls regarding the disturbance, threats and suicide threats that Friday.
Monday, Taylor read a portion of his original social media post accusing staff of not responding to bullying.
His father Chad Taylor requested complaint forms. A handful of other Taylor supports also made statements.
Area resident Ralph Brown spoke about his concern that students were not being taught respect at home and that this leads to disruptive behavior at school and in the community.
Brown also noted a destructive tendency for people to react to postings on the Internet without concern for veracity.
The one staff action which Superintendent Michael Carter said was out of line with policy was the practice of delaying suspensions to allow students to participate in sporting events.
$13 Million Budget Passed
The RSD board unanimously passed a $13,524,543 budget for 2014-15 following a brief period of audience questions.
The RSD general fund budgets $5,182,581 for instruction and $3,869,971 for support services.
Special revenue funds add $1,065,632 towards instruction, $466,759 for support services and $722,000 for enterprise and community services.
$582,500 is budgeted towards debt services and $248,000 is placed in the capital reserve fund.
The budget passed unanimously.
The board authorized a $150,000 loan for repairs and improvements at the Braircliff Pool, the replacement of RJSHS bleachers and work on a boiler.
Late Start Wednesdays
The board approved a proposal to hold teacher training during an hour-long late start every Wednesday morning for the 2014-15 school year.
Arrangements are being made to provide options for instructional assistants and high school students to provide childcare during the hour. Dr. Carter stated that the administrative staff favored the late starts to early release days employed last year.
Director Rod Harding asked administrators to periodically report on the impact of the training.
The board unanimously approved a 2014-15 calendar including the late start Wednesdays.
Seventh and ninth grade students will start classes Sept. 2. All other students will start Sept. 3.
It was reported that new principals for Hudson Park Elementary and RJSHS had moved into the area in preparation for classes next fall.
It was announced that Dr. Carter will be awarded the small schools Oregon superintendent of the year award on Friday, June 20, by the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators.
China Exchange Program Initiated
An exchange program between RJSHS and a yet-to-be-designated city in China will be initiated with exchange students coming from China and the future possibility of RJSHS students traveling to China.
The board approved program costs of $1800.
State Softball Championship Celebrated
The board recognized the accomplishments of the RJSHS softball team which won the Oregon 3A softball championship for the second year in a row.
Team members were congratulated and cake and refreshments were served.
by Deborah Steele Hazen
A recount in the primary election race for Columbia County Commission, Position 2, has assured that there will be a run-off between incumbent Henry Heimuller and challenger Wayne Mayo in November.
According to county election clerk Pam Benham, Mayo gained one vote in the recount, giving him 5301 votes to 5360 votes for Heimuller. With neither candidate receiving 50 percent plus one vote in the May 20th primary, the race will be repeated in the November general election.
In other election related news, Larry Erickson of Scappoose received enough write-in votes to achieve the Republican nomination for Oregon House of Representatives, District 31.
He will be the Republican candidate on the ballot in November, running against incumbent Democrat State Representative Brad Witt of Clatskanie, who was unopposed in the primary.
State Senator Betsy Johnson, Democrat of Scappoose, was also unopposed for her party’s nomination in the primary election, and won the Republican nomination on a write-in vote.
by Adam J. Wehrley
The Rainier city council passed a $9,717,706 budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year at its Monday, June 16, meeting.
The city’s $1,543,936 general fund budget includes $747,809 for the police department. Municipal court costs are budgeted at $126,585.
The city’s debt service fund is $1,019,984.
The sewer budget is $1,428,240. The water fund is $946,920.
The transportation capital improvement fund is budgeted at $928,718.
The budget provides for 17 employees in the general government, public works, library and police department.
Also at Monday’s meeting, the council discussed plans to remove silt from the Fox Creek Reservoir in preparation to reinstate it as a water source for the city. Mayor Jerry Cole reported that several councilors had toured the site and that permits were moving forward.
Mayor Cole said the silt should be removed in August or September of this year.
The Rainier Economic Development Council (REDCO) passed its $1,237,353 2014-15 budget. This included $280,000 in debt service.
THE FAIRY GODMOTHER is ready to turn little Cinderellas (like Ana and Elsie Wehrley) into princesses this Saturday, June 21, in the opening event of the Clatskanie Heritage Days celebration, which has as its theme “It’s a Magical Time in Clatskanie.” (See the story on page 8 for more information about upcoming Heritage Days events.) Girls aged 5 to 10 are invited to participate in the free “princess-in-training” event, but must pre-register by calling The Chief office at 503 728-3350 or emailing email@example.com no later than 5 p.m. on Friday, June 20. The event will take place at The Castle, 620 SW Tichenor Street, between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday. It will include tiaras, wands, singing, games, crafts and lunch. The little princesses are also invited to participate in the Heritage Talent Show on Monday, June 30, and ride on a Castle float in the 4th of July parade. Chief Photo by Amanda Gail Moravec