A preliminary review of Public Works Director Karen LaBonte is being conducted by the Oregon Government Ethics Commission to investigate possible violations of conflict of interest.
According to the commission, a citizen of Cannon Beach, Rusty Morris, filed a complaint, alleging LaBonte might have attempted to use her position to obtain financial gain for a business she co-owns. The commission states LaBonte may have failed to declare a conflict of interest when the city contracted with the business for services. The commission opened an investigation April 30.
LaBonte and her husband own a graphic design company in Cannon Beach. In March 2020, the city purchased two signs from the design company during COVID-19, including closed signs and mask signs, placed around the town. City Manager Bruce St. Denis had procured the signs for the city.
The investigator said there was no declaration of conflict of interest, or notification of writing or request from the supervisor to advise LaBonte on how to approach the conflict and address it.
Mayor Sam Steidel addressed the allegations during a special meeting June 8. He said he was personally involved in the meeting about acquiring the signs.
“We talked about getting the signs going as soon as possible,” Steidel said. “I also understood at the moment we were under emergency declaration.”
Steidel said it was under the purview of the city manager to act as he saw fit. He asks for citizens to obtain all information before making accusations against city employees.
City Manager Bruce St. Denis said the ethics complaint dealt with the signs as result of their meeting in March 2020 in relation to shutting down the city due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Cannon Beach Design is a company that is run by her husband,” St. Denis said. “La Bonte had for a long time taken a position that there was potential conflict there.”
Procedures were changed and La Bonte was not normally dealing with any signs, St. Denis added. Normal procedures were waived due to the emergency.
“Bruce St. Denis stated he authorized Karen La Bonte to manufacture the signs,” Morris said in a statement. “He also stated that Cannon Beach Design was the only graphic design/sign company in Cannon Beach. What he failed to say is there are two sign companies that have operated in Cannon Beach. These two companies are Action Sign Works in Astoria and Sign One in Seaside.”
A second ethics complaint against La Bonte has been dismissed. Morris filed the complaint, which concerned the disposal of surplus city fencing in 2018. The preliminary review by the commission found additional investigation was needed to determine if La Bonte had abused her position as public works director to benefit financially.
“I provided substantial evidence to the ethics commission about my fencing complaint,” Morris said. “Why the commission chose not to act, I do not know. However, the Clatsop County Sheriff’s Office has opened a criminal case and will thoroughly investigate the matter. My original complaint is still under investigation.”
La Bonte wrote in a statement that she is being targeted and harassed by Morris and he seeks to publicly embarrass her by filing these complaints.
“The commission appears to believe I should have provided my boss with a written notice regarding my ownership of the Cannon Beach Design Company,” La Bonte said in a statement. “The commission appears to have relied on this, despite the fact that I had in the past repeatedly verbally told my boss and the entire department of my connection to the company and despite the fact that the city, in an effort to avoid a conflict of interest, had already created a purchasing system that would not allow me to authorize any purchases from the company.”
La Bonte said the commission found no merit to Morris’ claims, other than they feel she should have declared the potential conflict in writing as well, rather than just verbally. The final document from this hearing will be signed during the upcoming July 23commission hearing.