Fired Up

Commissioner Diane McKeel's husband pulled strings with county officials.

Records show Dr. Mike McKeel used what one county planner called veiled threats and "overt" pressure on county officials who were trying to follow local zoning rules. 

Other documents, obtained by WW under Oregon's public records law, show Commissioner McKeel's staff directly contacted county officials on her husband's behalf.

The records raise more questions about how far Commissioner McKeel has been willing to go to aid friends and her husband by using her elected office to help them. 

Last week, WW reported that a former county employee has alleged that Commissioner McKeel engineered his firing after he tried to enforce land-use rules against a Corbett bed-and-breakfast owned by her political friends ("McKeel-Hauled," WW, Jan. 21, 2015). McKeel denied the accusation.

The ex-employee also charges that Mike McKeel exerted undue influence on county officials to expedite the siting of a new fire station for Multnomah Rural Fire Protection District No. 10. 

McKeel, a Gresham dentist and real-estate investor, is the elected chairman of the fire district's board, and the station site falls within the geographic boundaries of his wife's district.

In 2012, the district wanted to replace an aging fire station, but the proposed site of the new station wasn't zoned for such use. After the county approved the zoning change, the fire district proposed a larger project footprint and more road access points than the county wanted.

The approval process was contentious. 

In a May 2014 email, Don Kienholz, lead county planner on the project, described McKeel's "name-dropping of his county commissioner wife to send the message he's connected." According to one document, McKeel told a county planner that "we'll fire" a county attorney involved in the dispute—and then claimed he was just joking.

IMAGE: Kyle Key

"This was the most overt inference that he has influence and can even tell us staff what to do," Kienholz wrote in a June 6, 2014 email.

Documents show Mike McKeel made dozens of contacts with county officials, including Kienholz's bosses. "It's my hope that somehow issues as important as ours could be done in a more efficient way," McKeel wrote in a May 30, 2014, email. "When 30 seconds can be the difference in the life of a child, it makes some of the issues raised by land use seem pale.” 

A hearings officer gave McKeel and the fire district most of what they wanted on the new station. County officials later withheld the final permit, however, because the fire district hadn't satisfied all the conditions of approval.

At that point, Commissioner McKeel's staff got involved. On Sept. 4, Mary-Margaret Wheeler-Weber, an aide to the commissioner, sent an email with the subject line "Urgent Call from Mike McKeel re: fire station/landuse" to Diane McKeel's chief of staff, Eric Zimmerman. 

"Zimmerman called Karen [Schilling] and blasted her," Kienholz wrote Sept. 5 (Schilling is the county's director of transportation and land-use planning). "He is not the applicant but is acting on behalf of Diane McKeel and Mike McKeel.” 

Zimmerman tells WW he understood Mike McKeel's role created a sensitive situation, but that he was troubled previous tensions over the fire station were continuing. 

"He's working on behalf of a fire district," Zimmerman says of Mike McKeel. "It's not like he's building a house."

Kim Peoples, director of the county's Department of Community Services, met once with Mike McKeel at McKeel's request and talked to him several times on the phone.

Peoples says he does not recall another land-use applicant contacting him so often. But Peoples says McKeel's communications with him did not change the outcome.

Mike McKeel disputes Kienholz's version of events. McKeel says he never joked about firing a county employee and never used his wife's position to threaten Kiehnolz. "That's patently untrue," he says.

McKeel acknowledges enlisting his wife's staff to contact a county attorney to speed the process. He notes that an independent hearings officer decided the case, largely in the fire district's favor.

"We won on every issue on which there was a disagreement," Mike McKeel says. "But Diane never did anything for us. We didn't get any special treatment."

Diane McKeel agrees. “He was treated the same as any other constituent,” she says. 

Multnomah County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury, who oversees all county departments, tells WW she is troubled by allegations regarding McKeel's office.

"Even the appearance of inappropriate influence from elected officials erodes public trust," Kafoury says.

On Sept. 12, the fire district broke ground on the new station. According to the Gresham Outlook, the crowd sang "Happy Birthday to You" to Diane McKeel before she gave her speech and pointed to another reason to celebrate.

“We don’t have a lot of big capital projects in East Multnomah County,” she said. 

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