Questions of bias and conflict-of-interest that have dogged the Gearhart condominium issue arose in dramatic fashion at Wednesday's hearing with citizens challenging the right of a county commissioner to vote on the project.

Commissioner Bob Green stepped down from the proceedings over a notification rule - a rule that might have disqualified a Gearhart city councilor from voting on the issue. But Commissioner Russ Earl declined to excuse himself after he was accused of having made up his mind over the application months earlier.

Gearhart City Councilor Dianne Widdop made a formal challenge against Earl's participation in the vote, and presented the board with a signed affidavit in which she stated that the commissioner, during a gathering at the golf course's Kelly House last February, approached her and told her he planned to vote for the Kehoe zone-change request when it came before the commissioners for their approval.

"I said there would be a lot of new information presented, but you said you would listen with an open mind but would still vote for the Gearhart golf course," she said. "I was so surprised, so taken aback, that it stuck in my mind." She added that the only "honest, ethical" course for Earl was to excuse himself from the proceedings.

Earl responded that he did not remember any such conversation with Widdop, though he did not outright deny that it occurred.

"I had conversations with lots of people of all kinds," he said. "I don't remember that individual situation."

Earl said he intended to make his decision on the application based on the written materials and the testimony given at the hearing, and that he did not intend to step down.

Also challenging Earl's participation in the vote were Deanna and Phil Mancill, who both said they saw him at another Kelly House gathering in February talking with the three Gearhart city councilors who had supported the project.

Audience members can challenge the right of a commission or council member to hear an issue, but it is up to the member in question to voluntarily step down, or for the rest of the panel to vote to disqualify the person.

"The question before you is whether the evidence proves Commissioner Earl has or has not pre-judged the application," County Counsel Blair Henningsgaard told the board.

Evidence of bias by a councilor or commissioner can result in a land-use or other decision being overturned on appeal.

Prior to Widdop's challenge, Green announced he was stepping down from the zone-change proceedings, saying he had been advised to do so by Henningsgaard. But he made a motion that Earl be disqualified from the vote as well based on Widdop's affidavit.

"I know Commissioner Earl makes decisions because of his relationships with people here," Green said. "He's told me that a number of times."

But Commissioner Tim Gannaway defended Earl.

"I have worked with him for better than three years, and I have never seen him to be dishonest,

Russ Earland he comes into meetings open-minded," he said. "It seems we have got a city councilor who may not remember the conversation correctly because she was deeply involved in the issue, on the losing side."

Other audience members said they spoke with Earl at the party referred to by the Mancills, and that he refused to discuss the Kehoe project at all.

Green's motion was defeated 4-1.

Green was accused of bias himself in the written challenge filed by the project developers. Green wrote a letter to the Gearhart Planning Commission opposing the project, and testified against it at hearings as well.

Controversy over alleged bias and conflict-of-interest has surrounded the golf course zone-change issue since it was taken up by the Gearhart council, when Councilor Walter Daggatt excused himself from voting after declaring he could potentially benefit from the project as a real estate broker, then changed his mind and returned to help the council eke out a 3-2 vote supporting the zone change in February

Also supporting the application at that time was Gearhart Councilor Jane Shehane, whose eligibility to vote was questioned after the decision when it was learned she received notice as a property owner living near the subject property. Council and commission members who receive such notice are not allowed to vote on the issue - the same rule made Green, Shehane's neighbor at the time, ineligible to vote Wednesday.

"She was ineligible to vote for the same reason I am ineligible to vote," he said.

Shehane has since moved outside the city limits and given up her council seat.

When the issue of Shehane's eligibility was raised following the council's vote, city officials responded that the issue was moot because it had not been raised prior to the decision.

Shehane's eligibility was raised Wednesday by Peggy Hennessy, attorney for several project opponents, who said the fact that Shehane should have been disqualified from voting means the Gearhart council did not legally pass the zone-change ordinance, and that the county commission could not technically hear it.

Project opponents have filed a lawsuit in Clatsop County Circuit Court seeking to overturn the city's vote based on Shehane's alleged ineligibility. A hearing on the case is scheduled for June 28.