Gladstone councilor Linda Neace takes heat over votes, lawsuits
Supporters of Gladstone City Councilor Linda Neace's election in November 2016 pointed out how her opponent had pleaded guilty to a felony for first-degree theft in 1994.
Not publicly discussed during the City Council race was how Neace had more recent troubles in Clackamas County Court, on the civil rather than criminal side. In August 2016, her attorney sued the new owner of Bulls Eye Coffee (which became Cafe West Linn) for allegedly not paying Neace $30,200 she was owed when she sold the coffee shop in May 2015 due to her battle with stage-four colon cancer.
On Nov. 1, 2016, the new coffee-shop owners countersued Neace, saying she lied about the profitability of the business.
"Defendants reasonably relied upon to their determent on misleading statements, omission and actions of Plaintiff [Neace] that induced them to enter into an agreement to purchase assets of Bulls Eye Coffee," the attorney wrote to Clackamas County Court. "By reason of the foregoing, Defendants have been damaged in the amount to be determined at trial but at least $30,200 and in such further amounts as may be proved at trial."
The lawsuit never made it to trial and settled out of court for an undisclosed amount this past May. Neace said that the settlement didn't make up for all the damages that were done to her by the new owner who stopped making payments shortly after the sale.
"I had a lot of money invested in fixtures and equipment that I was forced to recover in court," Neace said. "The new owner had all the financial statements before buying the business — everything was fully transparent. I can empathize with them that running a small business can be difficult, but the assertion that it's the result of some dishonesty is flat out untrue."
As for the $1,345 she paid to a collections agency in 2010, Neace said this had nothing to do with the coffee shop.
"It was a loan I had signed for someone who failed to make the payment, and I found out after the fact," she said. "I had to pay it as a co-signer."
Neace moved from Oregon City to Gladstone in 2009 and was appointed to City Council in April 2016. As a city councilor, she quickly became involved in another action in Clackamas County Court. She voted for the city's August 2016 lawsuit against Clackamas County for $1.5 million in library funding and campaigned for election in November saying the lawsuit was necessary. In May, she changed her mind at the urging of Gladstone Library Board members, voting with a growing minority of City Council who unsuccessfully tried to get the city to drop the lawsuit.
Later in May, lawsuit supporters and City Councilors Steve Johnson and Kim Sieckmann were recalled by voters in a special election, followed by the sudden June 9 resignation of City Administrator Eric Swanson.
"These changes may positively affect the parties' ability to resolve this dispute," attorneys for the city and county wrote in a joint June 20 motion to cancel a Sept. 5 trial. "The stay will prevent the waste of scarce judicial resources as well as limiting the public dollars spent to litigate this matter."
Neace agreed that putting the active lawsuit on hold until at least Aug. 31 could lead to a mutually beneficial outcome for residents of Gladstone and the unincorporated residents of Oak Grove and Jennings Lodge who were proposed to be served by the city's library.
"After some productive conversations with Clackamas County, we also believe we can resolve this amicably without a lawsuit, which is in the best interest of the citizens of Gladstone," Neace said.
In the cross-hairs
Neace has been in the hot seat on the Gladstone City Council lately because of her swing vote in a 3-2 decision to shun the interview committee's pick for one of the seats on City Council vacated by the recall election.
Local citizen Patrick Mathis has said that maybe another recall is needed in Gladstone. He proposed that the council amend the city charter to call for a special election, rather than an appointment process, when there's a vacancy.
"It just seems that everywhere Linda goes, there's a trail of misdeeds," Mathis said. "This has got to stop, and the way that I follow her career, it almost seems predatory that she showed up here."
Mathis and other citizens have encouraged Neace to resign, in light of her shame over not voting for Frank Hernandez for a City Council appointment.
"I know that I have a target on my back, but I'm still who I am, and I'm not going to walk away," Neace said. "The people of Gladstone are worn out by the shenanigans of recall petitions and bomb-throwing by a handful of bitter political activists. This volunteer position on council is one I'm passionate about."
Hernandez, who is Hispanic, is still fuming that he was passed over on July 25. He watched in horror as Councilor Pat McMahon joined the meeting by phone just for the appointment vote and voted "lockstep" with Neace and Councilor Tom Mersereau, with no explanation for their decision to ignore the interview committee's recommendation.
"If it wasn't so blatantly racial, why would the ACLU and the [Oregon] Office of Civil Rights already contacted me?" Hernandez asked. "Not sure if I am going to allow these agencies to pursue this issue on my behalf but have not ruled it out."
Hernandez has asked Neace to admit publicly that no other candidate for appointment had his relevant governmental experience, such as responsibility for 15 years of more than $9 million annual budgets, leading three major construction projects and 30 years of experience implementing state laws.
"After our conversation she agreed that my credentials were superior to any other applicant (her words)," Hernandez said.
"I apologized for not picking him," Neace said. "I did tell him that race never entered my mind, and that I just saw him as a person, not for the color of his skin. I did tell him that I wished I had known more about his credentials. I did not use the word superior."
Conversations with other councilors
Neace has acknowledged that she spoke with both McMahon and Mersereau prior to the appointment vote.
"They made calls asking me to support Steve [for the appointment], and I told them I had to respect the wishes of the people who voted to recall him," Neace said.
"I did not say that," Mersereau said. "I did say that Steve was a qualified candidate, but I didn't recommend voting for him, because that would create more problems and challenges for the city. I said the same thing to Pat, and I remember him saying the same thing to me."
Mersereau and Neace are in agreement about their memory of the phone conversation they had prior to the July 25 meeting about voting for Matt Tracy instead of Hernandez.
"They did ask me what my thoughts were about voting for Matt," Neace said. "I had not reviewed the tape at that point and I was not sure."
Mersereau said he was consistent in his behind-the-scenes advocacy among city councilors for appointing Tracy alongside Michael Milch. Mersereau made his decision based on their experience working on the city's advisory boards, along with other factors he felt would make them a "good fit" for working with other city councilors.
"I make decisions based on what I feel is best for the city, period, and that's the way I have done things for many years," Mersereau said.
Mersereau said that he didn't think Neace intentionally lied about his comments regarding Steve Johnson, but rather likely heard him say that Johnson was qualified and didn't hear the second part of his statement against Johnson's appointment.
"Linda has been drug under the bus so to speak, and I don't think that's fair," he said. "Linda is a trouper, even though she's a new city councilor, and she works hard and does a lot of things that help the city."
Neace has told many citizens about her private conversations with other city councilors prior to their making appointments to City Council. This has had many people shaking their heads about the propriety of three city councilors — who were a quorum of Gladstone City Council at the time — possibly predetermining their votes for the appointment.
Historically in Oregon, the definition of open-meetings law required a quorum of a governing body to convene in the same place (or on the same conference call) before a meeting could occur. However, in a 2010 Lane County case, "the court concluded for the first time in Oregon that a violation of the public-meeting laws can occur even when a quorum of a public body never meets at the same time to make a decision or deliberate toward a decision," according to a 2011 white paper from the League of Oregon Cities.
The court explained that a Lane County meeting in 2009 was a "sham," because a quorum of elected officials had private conversations in which they deliberated and reached conclusions.
"All involved knew that a quorum of the board was working towards a final decision outside of the public meeting context," wrote Circuit Judge Michael Gillespie. "It was orchestrated down to the timing and manner of the vote to avoid any public discussion."
Neace said her decision hadn't been predetermined because she hadn't decided. Even on the afternoon of July 25, just prior to the meeting, Neace said that she still wasn't sure about her votes for the appointment.
Citizens encouraged to apply
Gladstone resident Susan Liston, a former elementary school teacher in the Beaverton School District, was impressed after working directly with Hernandez at the NW Regional Educational Laboratory. He left the lab after he was recruited by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop, then run, a college-prep high school for Native American students in the Portland area.
"We were so lucky that someone of this caliber would apply for a position on our City Council," Liston said. "He was chosen by five out of six people after interviews that were open and transparent to everyone and available for all councilors to view via recording before the City Council meeting. After all this work and time and energy, a few members colluded, yet again, behind everyone's backs to put a stop to a democratic and open process that kept Mr. Hernandez from being appointed."
In early July, Neace asked Liston to ask Liston's partner, Dave Sleight, to apply for one of the open positions on City Council.
"You know he has hearing trouble," Liston remembered telling Neace.
"We'll put him in the seat right next to Jacque Betz, [the seat that Sieckmann occupied before he was recalled]," Neace allegedly told Liston.
Sleight then received a phone call from Neace, who encouraged him to apply. Sleight told Neace that he didn't think that he could get three City Council votes necessary for the appointment.
"Don't worry about that; put your application in, and I'll get you the votes," Neace allegedly told Sleight.
Neace denies that she said this to Sleight.
"I told him he would be a good fit with his planning and project management background, and said he would need to get three votes for appointment," Neace said. "I certainly never promised him a vote."
"I don't have any reason to lie about this and I'd swear to it in court," Sleight said.
Sleight didn't end up applying for the position because he didn't want to compete with Milch and Hernandez. Sleight thought he'd make a better candidate for three positions that opened on Gladstone's Planning Commission this spring, but was peeved to lose out to "a Girl Scout leader, a retired electrician and a tissue-sales manager," as he reported in a letter to the Clackamas Review.
"I wouldn't want to take away from someone who's a lot more qualified than I am for City Council," Sleight said. "I know they're some shady things going on in Gladstone, and the shadiest thing is Linda calling me."
Neace said that she will remain on City Council in order to hold Gladstone government accountable to the people and provide affordable and great service to citizens.
"I didn't sign up [to be an elected official] to be lied about, have my business ethics challenged or my motivations examined for voting to appoint a better-qualified candidate than the one the committee recommended," Neace said. "The people of Gladstone deserve better than this. I look forward to putting these misguided and manipulative distractions behind us so we can focus on making Gladstone the kind of city in which we all want to live and work."
Potential elections complaint
An earlier version of this story online incorrectly reported the date that Neace moved from Oregon City to Gladstone, based on her voter registration having changed in 2014.
Neace insists that she has been living in Gladstone since 2009. She had been getting mail, including her election ballots, at her previous Oregon City address between 2009 and 2014.
Election records show that Neace didn't return her ballots for the 2011 Oregon City recall election or the Clackamas River Water recall election of 2013. Gladstone residents weren't eligible to vote in these elections.
Oregon City commissioners, rather than Gladstone city councilors, appeared on Neace's ballots in November 2010 and 2012. Neace also voted in the 2011 special-district election, which had candidates for the Oregon City School District or the Gladstone School District for local residents.
Neace said that she didn't remember voting for any of the Oregon City candidates while she was a resident of Gladstone and registered as a voter in Oregon City between 2009 and 2014.
"I don't think I voted in any of the Oregon City elections," Neace said.
In response to questions about the legality of Neace's actions, Clackamas County Elections Clerk Sherry Hall said that the circumstance "looks like a complaint against a voter to me." Hall offered to forward an election-law-violation complaint on Neace to the Secretary of State Elections Division, which would do the investigation and make a ruling.
Neace said that Hall still has a grudge from when the two of them ran against each other in 2014. Neace received 8.7 percent of the vote in the attempt to unseat Hall as clerk.
"She hasn't gotten over it," Neace said. "Of course she'll file an elections complaint, because she's done everything in the world."