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Tempest in the County Teapot

A cut-and-paste error by an attorney was enough to send the conservative members of the Lane County Board of Commissioners into a tailspin and reportedly briefly lock progressive Commissioner Pete Sorenson out of his office. Fellow liberal Commissioner Rob Handy had been locked out of his office for more than 80 days and was only recently let back in, long after an investigation into allegations of financial impropriety by the Oregon Department of Justice had released the office. 

At their Aug. 22 meeting, conservative Commissioners Sid Leiken, Jay Bozievich and Faye Stewart discussed a letter from Senior Assistant County Counsel Stephen Dingle to attorney Marianne Dugan, who represents Rob Handy in his case against the county in regard to a problematic May 3 “emergency meeting.”  

In an acceptance of the service document Dugan cut-and-pasted a caption from an earlier draft that had included Sorenson’s name in case he wanted to be part of the suit, she said. Sorenson told Dugan via his attorney that he did not wish to be part of the case, and Sorenson’s name was never on any complaint or summons, Dugan told Dingle in an email. 

Dingle and the commissioners discussed the issue, and Bozievich moved that the board go forward with drafting a complaint to the Oregon Bar Association as Dingle alleged that Dugan didn’t explain how the error happened or apologize for it. Dingle said an apology was needed for the “angst” and “turmoil” the caption had caused. 

The letter to Dugan requested a reply by close of business Aug. 22, but the discussion of what to do about the allegations Dingle was making and a vote to draft a bar complaint was held before that deadline.

“The inadvertent mistake of listing someone as your client and a plaintiff in a lawsuit has caused considerable disruption in the county offices and in the relationship between board members,” Bozievich said. “Maybe she can explain it to the bar.”

But Dugan, citing several emails between herself and Dingle, emailed the county counsel and pointed out that, “You made two erroneous statements to the commissioners about my communication with you.” 

She wrote, “You indicated that I did not apologize. I did,” and provided Dingle with a copy of the emailed apology. She wrote that Dingle also said that she referenced only attorney-client privilege in declining to answer the question as to how the error occurred. Dugan says she in fact invoked work product privilege; she later voluntarily waived the privilege solely to the facts surrounding the error.

In an Aug. 25 email to Dingle, Dugan pointed out, “As you know, as soon as I learned of the error (the same day I emailed you the erroneous form) I advised you of my error, and sent you a revised acceptance of service form.” She continued, “As you know (although you did not include this information in your statements during the meeting), at no time did the complaint or summons or any document filed with the court have Commissioner Sorenson listed.”

Dugan also addressed comments Dingle made in his Aug. 15 email and also at the Aug. 22 meeting about attorney-client privilege. “I still do not understand your reference to a concern about attorney-client privilege.  If you were suggesting that Mr. Sorenson relayed county confidences to me, that is a far-fetched interpretation of the situation and has no basis in fact.”

Commissioner Rob Handy announced on Aug. 28 that he has filed a federal lawsuit against the county, County Administrator Liane Richardson and Commissioners Bozievich, Stewart and Leiken alleging First Amendment retaliation, deprivation of due process and violations of Oregon’s public meeting law.