Report questions early CRC group's actions

Findings raise issues of potential public meetings violations

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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A critical report on Monday questioned whether a key group that helped shape the Columbia River Crossing in its early stages violated public meeting laws and deliberately discouraged public involvement.

Vancouver forensic accountant Tiffany Couch released her findings in a white paper addressed to Washington's legislative oversight committee on the CRC.

The report specifically takes aim at the CRC's Project Sponsors Council that met between 2005 and 2007. The group appeared to have made "potentially critical" decisions during that time, the report said. But some CRC documents and timelines only acknowledge the current Project Sponsors Council starting in 2008.

Among the documents Couch cited were a 2005 memo describing the original group as a "decision-making body" that would tackle major aspects of the CRC with only minimal, if any, public involvement.

"As a certified public accountant and certified fraud examiner, it is my professional opinion that these questions warrant further investigation by an agency of appropriate jurisdiction," Couch wrote. "That responsibility from here forward falls to you -- the elected officials who run these states -- in your representation of your constituents, the citizens of the states of Washington and Oregon."

The report came on the eve of the legislative oversight committee's next meeting, scheduled for this afternoon. Couch has been a prominent voice in the debate over the CRC since early last year, when Vancouver businessman and CRC critic David Madore hired Couch to comb through the project's finances and other documents.

As planning continues to move forward, the CRC still faces major financial and logistical questions. Among the most pressing: a still-unresolved flap over the height of a new Interstate 5 Bridge replacement, the centerpiece of the $3.5 billion plan. More than $160 million has been spent to date on the megaproject that would also extend light rail into downtown Vancouver and rebuild the freeway on both sides of the Columbia River.

Questions surrounding the Project Sponsors Council have come up before. In a question-and-answer memo prepared for Washington lawmakers last month, CRC officials acknowledged the council's meetings from 2005 to 2007. But the council was formed then by the two states' transportation departments to "advise the agencies and made no formal recommendations while it existed," according to the memo. The CRC made similar statements to the state Attorney General's Office in 2009 in response to questions after a public records request.

Former Clark County Commissioner Betty Sue Morris served on the original Project Sponsors Council after it formed in 2005. Morris briefly represented C-Tran as a board member at the time, she said.

Morris described the group as "very influential," but said its members couldn't unilaterally decide the direction of the CRC. That responsibility still rested with the local agencies that ultimately had to approve it.

"The decisions were not actually made there," Morris said of the council. "They were made at the jurisdictional levels that were represented at that table."

The council's meetings were open to the public, Morris said.

"I don't recall that there was an effort to keep it secret or behind closed doors or anything like that," she said.

The 2005 memo cited in Couch's report, written before the group's first meeting, took a different tone. It described the sponsors council as a decision-making body that would direct the CRC on the project's problem definition, evaluation framework and the locally preferred alternative, among other aspects of the CRC, before the agencies themselves took action. The memo, dated October 2005, also outlined public notice procedures.

"The decision meetings would be open to the public, but only minimum legal notices would be provided and no display advertising would be placed," the memo read. "We would not encourage public participation."

In an email, CRC spokeswoman Anne Pressentin said the group agreed in late 2005 that it would instead play an interagency coordination role, not a decision-making role. That shift is reflected in early meeting materials. But members did aim for "discussion and consensus," according to those agendas. The group held its last meeting in January 2007, according to the CRC.

The governors of Washington and Oregon formed the CRC's current Project Sponsors Council in 2008. It represents the same eight agencies included in the original group. Agendas and meeting materials for that group dating back to November 2008 remain posted on the CRC website.

It's unclear what impact, if any, Couch's report will have on the CRC debate, or today's legislative oversight meeting. The legislative committee today will allow public comment. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. in the Washington State Department of Transportation's regional headquarters, 11018 N.E. 51st Circle in Vancouver.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.