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After DOJ Advice, Dennis Richardson Won't Send Deputy To Meetings In His Place

<p>Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, left, Gov. Kate Brown, and Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read make up Oregon's State Land Board.</p>

Cassandra Profita

Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, left, Gov. Kate Brown, and Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read make up Oregon's State Land Board.

Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson has decided not to send his top deputy to attend meetings in his place, following advice from the state's Department of Justice

In an email sent out Monday afternoon, the Secretary of State’s Office said Deputy Secretary of State Leslie Cummings would no longer attend meetings of the State Land Board while Richardson undergoes treatment for a cancerous brain tumor. That follows “verbal advice” from the Office of the Attorney General “disagreeing with part” of Richardson’s decision to send Cummings to the meetings, according to an email sent by his office Monday.

“Although our office has a different perspective on this, Secretary Richardson does not want to waste taxpayer resources on a lengthy legal fight to vindicate his rights as a member of the Land Board,” wrote Steve Elzinga, Richardson’s governmental and legal affairs director.

The State Land Board is made up of three high-ranking elected officials: Richardson, Gov. Kate Brown and Treasurer Tobias Read. In October, Richardson said he wouldn’t be attending while he undergoes treatment.

“In order to focus my time and energy, I have decided to reduce public appearances,” Richardson wrote Oct. 15. He cited provisions in state statute and the Oregon Constitution, saying Cummings would be voting on his behalf during his absence.

Within the Capitol, the move raised questions — both about whether such an arrangement was allowed and over how seriously Richardson’s condition has impacted his ability to do the job.

The secretary has said repeatedly in video statements that his office is running at full steam, but that he is splitting time between Salem and his southern Oregon office in Central Point. In the latest video, released Dec. 13, he reiterated that statement, but also acknowledged the toll his cancer treatment has taken on his energy and, occasionally, his ability to speak clearly.

At the same time, the Oregon treasurer’s office requested an opinion from the attorney general over whether Richardson’s unelected deputy was allowed to vote on his behalf. Dmitri Palmateer, chief of staff to Read, said Monday morning that he expected to know more about that opinion by the afternoon.

The substance of the DOJ’s opinion was not clear from Elzinga’s email. Neither the DOJ nor Office of the Treasurer immediately responded to inquiries.

The announcement that Cummings will no longer sit on the land board comes a day before the body is scheduled to meet in Salem. Cummings sat in for Richardson in the board’s last meeting in October, but all items that were up for a vote in that meeting were pushed back.

The land board largely takes up routine and mundane matters. Items that were delayed in October included approving easements for bridges on state land, selling off a 0.4-acre parcel of property and amending administrative rules.

But the board also makes weighty decisions that can draw intense scrutiny, such as when it considered selling the Elliott State Forest in 2017. It plans to explore options for keeping the forest under public ownership at its meeting tomorrow. 

It was not immediately clear Monday whether Richardson plans to attend the next board meeting, or appear by telephone.

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Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.