Mayor Charlie Hales was hoping to make a big splash in the Superfund cleanup of the Portland Harbor.

In October, Hales announced he had lured state Sen. Jackie Dingfelder (D-Portland) to become his new environmental and planning adviser. By hiring Dingfelder, who chaired the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Hales could show he was serious about his green agenda.

That includes the 11-mile stretch of Portland Harbor designated as a federal Superfund site. The city is one of the biggest suspected polluters of the harbor's sediments.

It turns out there's a big problem with his plan. 

Dingfelder's husband, Tom Gainer, works for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, one of the agencies trying to oversee and enforce the cleanup by the river's polluters, including the city.

To make matters more complex, Dingfelder's husband is project manager of the DEQ's in-water sediment cleanup. He's assigned to monitor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's removal of contaminated sediment from the harbor.

According to city documents, Dingfelder's husband is supposed to comment on proposals for cleanup from polluters, including the city.

That creates a potential conflict of interest for Dingfelder if she is directly involved in the city's role in helping clean up the harbor.

Dingfelder tells WW that Hales knew about the conflict when he interviewed her for the job.

"I made it very clear," Dingfelder says. "I'm not going to work on Superfund, because my husband's a project manager. There's lots of other environmental issues I can be working on."

Dingfelder later clarified that she told Hales she would advise him on the Superfund cleanup, but she would not be the lead staff person.

But that hasn't stopped Hales from continuing to promote Dingfelder as a leader in the Superfund cleanup. He told business leaders as recently as Nov. 14 she would play a principal role.

Hales said the same thing in a Nov. 4 interview with WW. "Superfund, first of all," Hales replied when asked what work Dingfelder would do in his office.

When Dingfelder started work in the mayor's office, she sought a legal opinion from the city attorney about whether her work on the Superfund project would violate city policy, which tells officials to avoid the "appearance of impropriety," or state ethics laws, which prohibit using public office for personal gain.   

"While it is possible that DEQ may take some action that will benefit or provide some detriment to the City," City Attorney James Van Dyke wrote Dingfelder on Nov. 21, "we are not aware of any facts that show that any actions taken by your husband would provide you with a financial benefit or detriment."

The confusion Hales has caused by hiring Dingfelder and defining her role in the cleanup echoes other problems he's created for himself as mayor.

As WW has reported ("Goofus and Gallant Go to City Hall," WW, Nov. 6, 2013), he reversed course on funding for projects ranging from new sidewalks to fighting sex trafficking. He stood by his police liaison even after the aide sexually harassed a county commissioner in public. Hales had no aide assigned to deal with homelessness until after he had police sweep campers from sidewalks.

On environmental issues, Hales floated the idea of a “carbon tax” but dropped it when it didn’t poll well. 

WW reported a similar conflict of interest earlier this year: U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) is married to Margaret Kirkpatrick, chief counsel for NW Natural Gas, one of the companies on the hook for cleaning up the harbor. Blumenauer has repeatedly promoted NW Natural's position in the debate over the harbor's cleanup.

Hales says his hiring of Dingfelder should not create any confusion about who in his office is in charge of the harbor cleanup.

“On the topic of leadership: I’m the lead on Superfund,” Hales tells WW. “I made that clear from day one.”