Monday, January 17, 2022
Jan. 17, 2022

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County attorney accused of conflict of interest

Rail company president, Christine Cook differ on new law

By , Columbian political reporter

One morning in late February, Eric Temple decided he’d had enough.

Temple is the president of Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad, the company that holds the lease with Clark County to operate the rail line that runs through Chelatchie Prairie. For the last several months, Temple has been arguing with Clark County staff over how to implement a change to state law that would allow industrial development on farmland along 33 miles of the underutilized line.

On that morning, he sent out an email addressed to state Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, and Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas (who worked on the change to state law). He copied the entire county council and several members of county staff.

“As you both might know, I’ve been very frustrated with the staff and how they’ve been presenting this law, and now believe I understand the root of the problem,” reads the email. In the email, Temple wrote that the problem is Christine Cook, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney who handles land-use issues and offered a cautious reading of the new law. 

Cook referred questions to Emily Sheldrick, the county’s top civil lawyer, who said she has found no conflict of interest in the case. Clark County Council Chair Marc Boldt also said he doesn’t see Cook as conflicted.

The exchange is the latest in the behind-the-scenes drama as the county has sought to avoid litigation while implementing a new state law that’s expected to bring high-paying jobs to Clark County.

David McDonald, a lawyer for local conservation group Friends of Clark County who has criticized the implementation as being skewed in favor of Temple’s interests, said it’s problematic that Temple is taking “incredible steps” to undermine Cook.

“The reason it’s problematic is because Ms. Cook’s obligations are to protect the county councilors, and Mr. Temple’s are to protect his financial interests,” he said. “And those two things are not always likely to be the same.”

The county is drafting regulations for development along the rail line with the help of a volunteer advisory committee that Temple has a nonvoting seat on. McDonald said he worries that members of the committee will doubt staff’s opinions if Temple is able to undermine them.

Temple said he maintains that Cook’s opinions haven’t changed from her time with 1000 Friends of Oregon and that she should have recused herself.

He said that Cook and other members of staff have misinterpreted the new law allowing the development. He also said they’ve used incorrect definitions, making it harder to implement the law.

“Every single step of the way, she has tried to change this for her personal political beliefs; and if she wants to do that, she should run for office,” he said. “It’s silly what’s going on.”

The issue

Ever since last fall when the county began implementing Senate Bill 5517, the legislation that allows for development along Chelatchie Prairie Railroad, there’s been disagreement. Both Cook and Community Planning Director Oliver Orjiako have called for a cautious approach, advising the council to first adopt a public participation plan and amend the county’s comprehensive plan.

Their recommendations drew frustration from local lawmakers who worked on Senate Bill 5517, as well as Temple and Clark County Councilor Eileen Quiring (whose district includes the rail line), who have argued for a swift implementation of the law so development can occur.

Records show that a source of disagreement between Temple and county staff has been whether the law allows sewer services to be extended to the rail line.

The state’s Growth Management Act restricts the extension of utilities beyond urban growth areas, land outside of a city reserved for future growth.

Emails released by Clark County show county planning staff expressing skepticism that storm or sanitary sewers could be extended to the rail line. In November, Temple emailed the council reiterating his disagreement with county staff over the intent of Senate Bill 5517.

“The statute’s intent section calls out for an expansion of Economic Development Infrastructure, which is a term used throughout the U.S. and world to apply to roads, water, sewer etc. … any expansion would need to apply services previously prohibited, i.e., sanitary sewer,” he wrote.

Temple said that “it’s crystal clear” that the law allows sewer services to development along the rail line and that Cook misinterpreted the law.

“My cards are all face up,” Temple said. “My job is to advocate for the railroad and make it work.”

Temple also emailed Cook trying to work out their interpretations of the law. He said Cook didn’t respond. Records show that in January Temple requested records from the county for Cook’s disclosure of past work and conflicts of interest with 1000 Friends of Oregon.

In February, Temple sent his email to lawmakers, councilors and county staff accusing Cook of having a conflict of interest. He included a 2005 article from the Statesman Journal on an Oregon Supreme Court case on who could challenge a city or county land-use action. The article quotes Cook as saying, “I have an interest in farmland preservation, despite the fact that I live in a large urban area.”

Temple cited Rules of Professional Conduct arguing that Cook’s past work has skewed her current work for the county.

Of the councilors, Quiring forwarded the email to Lindsey Shafar, the council’s policy analyst, and Interim Clark County Manager Jim Rumpeltes. Quiring refused to comment on whether she had confidence in Cook, saying she couldn’t comment on personnel issues. She said she’s been frustrated by the slow pace of implementing the law allowing the new development.

“Now more than ever do I want to bring jobs to Clark County so we have family-wage jobs for people right here on this side of the river,” she said. 

County responds

Sheldrick said in an email that Cook disclosed her “unrelated work in Oregon” when she was hired by the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

She said that after reviewing the matter, she determined that Cook does not have a conflict of interest.

“Ms. Cook’s prior work as an attorney in Oregon concluded nearly 10 years ago and did not involve or was in any way related to her work on behalf of the (Clark County Council),”  Sheldrick said.

John Strait, emeritus professor of law at the Seattle University School of Law, said there is no conflict of interest unless Cook had appeared on behalf of a client on the same or closely related matters with the same issues and facts.

He said ethical rules assume that attorneys can represent clients without their personal beliefs interfering and her remarks to the Statesman Journal don’t “rise to that level.”

Temple said he still has a good relationship with the county council and planning staff.

Boldt, the council chair, said he’s “very comfortable” with Cook and that “everyone has a past life.”

He also said the council will likely send a letter asking Temple to “watch his rhetoric,” noting that these exchanges could become ammunition for critics.

Columbian political reporter