Astoria attorney Blair Henningsgaard has been hired to represent the Port of Astoria, Seaside School District and Jewell School District in the $1.4 billion breach of contract timber lawsuit filed by Linn County against the state.
The state Board of Forestry in 1998 passed a rule emphasizing conservation and recreation along with timber harvests on state forestlands. The class-action lawsuit, supported financially by the timber industry, claims the change in policy breached a historical contract to maximize sustainable timber harvests on forestlands deeded by counties in the 1930s and 1940s, costing them an estimated $1.4 billion.
Henningsgaard will attend meetings of legal counsel representing the parties in the lawsuit. His representation of the Port and school districts is separate from his position as the city attorney for Astoria, which not a party to the timber lawsuit.
“Based upon a discussion with John DiLorenzo (Linn County’s attorney), I do not anticipate my fee exceeding $10,000 annually; $3,333 apiece,” Henningsgaard wrote in a letter to the Port, Seaside and Jewell. “This assumes I will attend four meetings per year in Salem and spend time getting up to speed on the case and in communications.”
A win or settlement in favor of the plaintiffs could result in sizable payouts to the approximately 140 taxing districts party to the lawsuit. Those include local school districts, the Port and Clatsop Community College.
Clatsop County, which has about 23 percent of the forestlands involved in the lawsuit, was the only county among the 15 counties included in the class action to opt out, meaning it has no counsel at meetings about the progress of the lawsuit. Four other taxing districts under the county were automatically removed, and the Sunset Empire Parks and Recreation District voted to opt out.
Dirk Rohne, a Port commissioner and former county commissioner, came up with the idea to seek separate legal representation. When he was a county commissioner, Rohne had kept track of the lawsuit. But the vote on whether to opt out was delayed until shortly after he was out of office. His replacement on the county board, Kathleen Sullivan, was one of the three “yes” votes in the 3-2 decision to opt out. Residents had urged commissioners to oppose the lawsuit in favor of a more balanced forest management policy.
“Ultimately, the only thing that the county has accomplished is it’s in the dark,” Rohne said, adding elected leaders have a fiduciary duty to participate in issues that could affect constituents.
Seaside and Jewell school districts receive the most timber tax revenue of any in the county, Seaside Superintendent Sheila Roley said.
“We just wanted to have someone who understood the aspects of that legal conversation,” she said.
Jim Knight, the Port’s executive director, set up the meeting with Seaside and Jewell school districts about hiring representation.
“We did not purposefully exclude anyone,” Knight said. “It was easier to do a meeting with these three entities. These are the three largest recipients of (timber) tax proceeds” in the county.
A Linn County judge recently denied the state’s attempts to have the lawsuit thrown out on the grounds that it has sovereign immunity against lawsuits by other governments.
In his letter, Henningsgaard wrote that DiLorenzo will likely file an appeal prior to trial to clarify legal issues surrounding the state’s duties, and that he would likely provide input.
“If the appeal is filed, it will probably be several years before the court makes a decision,” Henningsgaard wrote. “This means that a trial in this case is a long way off. I got the impression from DiLorenzo that the state of Oregon is not inclined towards settlement discussions.”