Rumors had been swirling for months around the small community of Powell Butte about how the developer of Crossing Trails resort picked up two bar tabs for members of the planning commission during a period of time where the commission was weighing approval of the 500 home resort and golf course. In late August the chair of the planning commission, Bill Gowen, went on the record to state the several members of the commission had eaten and drank on a tab that was ultimately picked up by Crossing Trails developer Gene Gramzow.
Two of those commissioners ultimately recused themselves from the final decision on the resort, which passed by a 4-1 margin earlier this month.
But the episode has caused some to question the relationship between developers and local officials, who critics say have taken an overly accommodating approach to resorts that they say are chewing up farmland and changing the character of the rural community of Powell Butte near Prineville.
"Our first reaction was our jaws dropped," said Mollie Eder, a neighbor of the proposed resort who also authored a measure forcing the county to withdraw its underlying authority to establish resorts.
Under Oregon's new law, public officials can take up to $50 in gifts, including food and drinks, over the course of a calendar year without disclosing it publicly, said Ronald Bersin, executive director of Oregon's ethics commission.
Crook County officials, some of whom were at the restaurant at the time of the incidents, say that neither of the tabs would have approached the $50 limit, which applies to individual commissioners as opposed to the entire group.
But at least one commissioner said the county hasn't done enough to investigate the incident or head off future problems.
Arlene Curths said planning commissioners have not received any training on state ethics rules, nor has the county followed up on the recent incidents both of which were disclosed to them several months ago.
A planning commissioner with more than five years experience, Curths said she was troubled by the incidents, which occurred at a restaurant outside of Prineville where commissioners often go after meeting to unwind with a drink.
Curths, who was present on both occasions, said Crook County officials were sitting in a separate area of the restaurant and were not aware that Mr. Gramzow had picked up the tab for the group until they were ready to leave. At that point Gramzow and his party were already gone, Curths said. Unsure of her obligation, Curths said she went to the county attorney, Dave Gordon, who agreed to look into the matter. Curths said Gordon never got back to her. Curths said she followed up with Gordon before the committee's next meeting on Aug. 13, at which point Gordon looked up the law and advised her that she was under the $50 limit and not obligated to disclose the bar tab.
After the next meeting several planning commissioners, including Curths, Kim Kambak, Rick Wells, and Jerry Crafton (Editor's note: The original story placed Susan McDermott here as well, according to Curths. The Source left a message for McDermott last week which went unreturned. We have since spoken with her and learned that she was not present. We regret the error.)were back at the restaurant with planning director Bill Zelenka when the developer and his team came in and again picked up the tab without the group's knowledge.
Gramzow's attorney, Peter Livingston, acknowledged that he was at the restaurant at the time of the incidents, but said he was completely unaware that his client had paid the bill for planning commissioners until late August when he got a call from Zelenka informing him that planning commissioners would discuss the matter at their meeting that night.
Asked whether he talked to his client about the incident since then, Livingston said he didn't want to comment further.
After the second incident, Curths said she got a copy of the tab, which came out to $47, from the wait staff. Frustrated that the developer had again picked up the check without their knowledge, Curths went again to see the county attorney Gordon.
Curths said Gordon told her that she needed to stop Mr. Gramzow from picking up any more bar tabs for the county commission, but that there has been no more follow-up from the county.
"The incident is not the essential issue, it's the process. The correct process has been violated and people knew about it and they did nothing," Curths said.
Resort opponent Eder agrees.
"Just because it meets the standard of being ethical doesn't make it right. They could have, even after finding out who paid for their drinks, publicly written a check," Eder said.
But Judge Scott Cooper, the county's top elected official, said he believes the system worked as it should have with councilors who had conflicts recusing themselves before the decision.
He called the move by Gramzow to surreptitiously pick up the tabs "slimy," but added that it's part of politics.
"We all understand that's how social grease works in our society. I think (the commissioners) were caught in a situation not of their own making."
Cooper said the county has followed up with several memos clarifying the county's position on gifts. He said the county also has semi-annual ethics training for staff scheduled for this week, which it is opening up to anyone who serves on a county board, including the planning commissioners. He dismissed Curth's criticism that the county hadn't done enough to train her or other staff members about possible conflicts. After the legislature passed new tighter ethics laws last fall, Crook County held a seminar at the fairgrounds to go over the new rules. He said Curths and other commissioners were invited, but not required, to attend.
Curths said there is no way that $10 in drinks would have affected her decision, or the decision of anyone else on the planning commission, with regard to Crossing Trails. However, the bar tab incidents may have had an unintended outcome: commissioner Kambak, who is running for Cooper's seat on the county court (the equivalent of the Deschutes County's Commission) recused herself publicly before the decision because of what she said was a bias against the applicant over the bar tabs. Kambak said at the time that she saw the bar bills as an attempt to influence the planning commission's decision.
Curths also recused herself after she said Cooper and planning director Zelenka told her she was obligated to publicly disclose a donation from a prominent resort critic to her own campaign for a seat on the county court. Curths said that she was told that she should have disclosed the $500 donation as soon as possible as a potential conflict. Curths said she wasn't aware of the law until Cooper and Zelenka mentioned it as a conflict.
"I'm absolutely committed to open and transparent government and if there is anything that smells of not being open, I don't want any part of it," Curths said.
Sensing a challenge to her impartiality, Curths said she chose to bow out of the Crossing Trails discussion after months of homework.
She won't say whether she would have voted against the resort, but acknowledges that she had serious questions about how it would meet the requirements of state and local law for such developments.
"I would have wanted the discussion with the whole group. Maybe they would have talked me out of those things; my mind was still open at that point."
Meanwhile, Curths said that while she hasn't yet done it, she plans to repay her portion of the tab to Gramzow.