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Ethics panel dismisses EPUD complaint.

Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

The state Government Ethics Commission has dismissed a complaint against a local utility board member, but the agency's investigation noted that the utility violated public meetings law and kept shoddy and incomplete meetings records.

The ethics complaint targeted Patti Chappel, president of the board of the Emerald People's Utility District, which serves about 20,000 customers in the small communities surrounding Eugene and Springfield.

Utility watchdog Sandra Bishop filed the complaint against Chappel in October, alleging that Chappel failed to disclose a conflict of interest and used her elected position for financial gain, a violation of state ethics law.

The complaint stemmed from actions by the board and Chappel after Chappel bought a home apparently without realizing it was outside the utility district's legal boundaries.

While EPUD does provide electrical service to the house located on Strawberry Lane in Veneta, its residents can't vote on utility district matters or run for election to the board of directors.

At Chappel's request, the board made a concerted effort in 2010 to get her Strawberry Lane home annexed into the district, first seeking to have the annexation put on a general election ballot, a move the Lane County Board of Commissioners blocked.

The utility then went to court and asked a judge to intervene, but that effort also failed.

Bishop alleged that "the annexation of Ms. Chappel's property, absent similarly situated properties located adjacent to or within the immediate vicinity of Ms. Chappel's property, would be a financial benefit to Ms. Chappel, allowing her to vote in district elections and serve on the district board," according to the ethics commission's investigation.

EPUD pays its board members a $134 stipend per meeting, plus provides them health care coverage. In 2010, Chappel's stipends and health care benefits totaled $31,000.

The ethics commission investigation partially exonerated Chappel.

"While the evidence is inconclusive as to whether Ms. Chappel publicly declared the nature of the actual conflicts of interest on each occasion as required ... information indicated Ms. Chappel refrained from participation in the discussion and vote on both occasions," the investigator's report concluded.

The investigator also found that the utility board violated state public meetings law by meeting outside the district's boundaries and failing to keep adequate records of its meetings.

"The failure of the board of directors to provide for sound, video or digital recordings of its meetings, in addition to the district maintaining insufficient or incomplete meeting minutes ... hindered the Commission's ability to locate full or complete information," the investigator found.

Plus, the board's July 6, 2010, meeting to discuss the Chappel residence issue "was not held within the geographic boundaries of the district, as required by Oregon Public Meetings law," the investigator noted. In sum, the circumstances "created serious doubts regarding the transparency of Ms. Chappel and the other board members," the investigator wrote.

Being unable to document the allegations made it hard to pursue the investigation, the state concluded.

Bishop, who attended the ethics commission's meeting on Monday, said she is disturbed by the utility's poor record keeping.

"There was not any way for the investigator to determine whether (Chappel) violated anything," Bishop said.

Chappel said she is pleased with the decision.

"I'm happy as a clam at high tide. I'm really glad because it's just one more instance of (utility watchdog Pam) Hewitt and Bishop harassing the utility. It's just bogus, bogus, bogus," she said.

Chappel said that while she may not have explicitly said before every board discussion of annexation what her specific conflict of interest was before leaving the room, her fellow board members were well aware of it.

"You're talking to the same people about the same issue," she said. "But the minutes didn't reflect well what took place in the room."

Chappel said she currently lives in a house on Ridiculous Road that is inside EPUD's boundaries. Her son Alex lives in the Strawberry Lane house, she said.
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Title Annotation:Local News; The ethics commission takes no action against board member Patti Chappel but says the utility kept poor meeting records
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 31, 2011
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