A School Board member in Silverton has filed a complaint with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission over the transfer of 25 truckloads of dirt, arguably worth thousands of dollars, to the Chair of the School Board, Tim Roth. The Superintendant of the school district says the transfer was not improper and that Roth was doing the community a favor in taking it.
Oregon’s Ethics Commission has regulatory jurisdiction of areas of public official conduct such as the use of public office for financial gain and conflict of interest. It considers cases involving ORS Chapter 244, Oregon Government Ethics law.
The complainant was Todd White, who has been a member of the Silver Falls School District in Silverton for almost a year. On his June 15 complaint form he wrote, “Mr. Roth either solicited, or was given all of the dirt, approximately 25 truckloads… and it was delivered to his house, free of charge. This dirt is district property in my opinion, and was not offered to the public or any other board member, not that they could have accepted it.”
The dirt at the heart of the matter came from a turf removal that began in early June from McGinnis Field in Silverton. It was cleared away as part of a project to replace the field with artificial turf so Silverton High teams, then limited to about 20 days a year because of the bad effects of weather on the grass, could use it hundreds of times a year.
On August 14, 2015, the Silver Falls School Board approved the $1 million project, which also included upgraded field lights, as a community-sponsored project. A fundraising campaign began immediately, spearheaded by the Silver Fox Foundation, a Silverton non-profit foundation, along with several youth sports groups. The Silver Fox Foundation organized a ‘gofundme’ campaign to solicit community donations and, as early as August 2015, the Our Town newspaper for Silverton, Mt. Angel and Scotts Mills reported that the project had already received $60,000 from a grant and trust fund.
By May 2016, the Silver Fox Foundation Facebook page thanked donors and announced that although some funding was still needed, groundbreaking would begin in June. On June 6, the Silver Fox fundraising site reported that work had begun, with project manager Bill McNutt and Silver Fox president Rick Schmidt present for the groundbreaking; three days later the same site said 6,000 yards of dirt and 500 dump trucks had completed the excavation phase.
K & E Excavating of Salem removed and hauled off the dirt that was to be replaced by artificial turf. Reportedly, 25 trucks carrying 10 cubic yards each drove approximately 2,500 cubic yards to a low spot on Silver Falls School Board Chair Tim Roth’s property. There it was spread by his employees.
Online pricing for Trails End Recovery and Home Depot suggests that the cost of this dirt runs between $8 and $25 a cubic yard. That would value the amount of dirt received at a minimum of $2,000.00. Local hauling prices for dirt range from $50 – $200 per trip, placing the market price of the delivery at a minimum of $1,250.00.
“This is a large financial gain exclusive to Mr. Roth, and no one else,” White told the Ethics Commission. “Thousands of dollars in district property going to the board chair’s property does not seem legal or ethical.”
The substantial dirt transfer became the subject of conversation in the small community. White first asked Silver Falls School District Superintendant Andy Bellando for clarification. Reportedly, White mentioned Oregon law, ORS 244 and Silver Falls School District policy, both of which limit gifts to public officials to $50 per year and which restrict public officials from using their position for financial gain.
“I exchanged several emails with the superintendent in which Mr. Roth was cc’d,” White says, “and had several conversations with the Oregon School Board Association. I wasn’t satisfied with the responses, and took the next step,” which was to contact the Ethics Commission.
“I filed the complaint because it was the right thing to do,” White says. “All the public saw was free dirt going to a board member’s house and they weren’t allowed to have any. This looks bad because the dirt belongs to the taxpayers, in my mind.”
Born and raised in Silverton, Marilyn Annen taught in area schools from 1980 – 2007, and served as principal of Scotts Mills Elementary School from 2007-2015. She says her experiences disposing of Silver Falls school property were always guided by district policy DN G1.
The rules of this policy require that unwanted or surplus school property that is valued to be greater than $100 be disposed of through sale by a bidding procedure.
Only if public sales fail to produce interested buyers or bidders, the rules say, “such remaining unsold materials may then… be disposed of as scrap or junk or be donated to appropriate charitable or educational agencies.”
At one point while working in the Silver Falls School District, Annen found an old piano on her hands. It “no longer had any educational value to our school,” she recalls, and so she made it available to all the other schools in the district. When none were interested, Annen was instructed by the district office to offer it to the community through a process of sealed bids.
“It was advertised in several venues, including our school newsletter, and a broadcast phone call,” she says. “After the deadline, I examined all bids and the highest bidder was awarded the sale.”
Silver Falls School District Superintendant Bellando maintains that the 25 truckloads of dirt is in a different category than Annen’s piano, in part because arrangements for the McGinnis Field upgrade project occurred through the Silver Fox Foundation, with the one vote of the School Board last August to approve the gift limiting the district’s involvement.
“As a privately funded and non-public contract,” he says, “all planning, coordination and decision making for the project was completed by the Silver Fox Foundation. This includes the selection of a site for movement of dirt from the field and all other contracts for the project… Removal of the dirt is part and parcel to this project.” Bellando says that the district’s acceptance of the gift of the McGinnis Field project from the community “also reflects agreement by the school district for dirt removal by a contractor.”
Bellando, who told Salem Weekly he had discussed the matter with Roth and was speaking on his behalf, says Roth was approached by the Silver Fox Foundation with a request to place the dirt on his property about 1 mile from McGinnis Field. “It is my understanding,” Bellando says, “that other sites were considered but this one was selected due its close proximity and the fact that Mr. Roth would not charge the Silver Fox Foundation for the placement of the dirt. He added that Roth also saved on expensive hauling. “It is also my understanding that current costs to contractors for placement of dirt with a project as this is in the range of $25-$50 per truckload. Placement at other sites would have resulted in significantly higher costs for the project. It would have resulted in more time required for the project as well.”
Roth’s agreement to accept the dirt had no connection to his role as a school board member, Bellando maintains. “In addition,” Bellando says, “he did not charge for the delivery of the dirt to his site and he assumed all liability for its placement and quality. He also spent additional money to spread the dirt after its delivery. There is no conflict with ORS 244.025 as there has been no financial gain to Mr. Roth as a result of his position as an elected official.”
White’s stance differs from Bellando’s in the strongest possible terms. ”It is my understanding that a third party transfer of school property to a board member does not absolve them of ethics violations,” he told the Ethics Commission. “The appearance of improprieties here is glaring to the public. This dirt was given to/asked for by Mr. Roth, the board chair, but not given to, or made available to the public.”
Neither Tim Roth nor K&E Excavation president Kerry Kuenzi responded to repeated requests for comment. No member of the Silver Fox Foundation was willing to speak with Salem Weekly on the record.
White says he ran for school board “because I kept hearing about the lack of trust the public had with the board. I wanted to find out why, and see what I could do to repair it. An ideal school board listens to the public.”
The next step for the Ethics Commission will be to review White’s complaint to see if the violation appears to be within the commission’s jurisdiction. This step must be completed within 135 days of the filing. Then, if the commission finds “cause” to pursue the case, a 180-day investigative phase begins.
White says he’s willing to wait. “While it may be proven that I’m wrong in this case, the public is owed an impartial investigation.”