Hagg Lake fiasco is merely a symptom of Washington County’s arrogance and incompetence

Dropping the charges against a man arrested for bolting cardboard warning signs at Henry Hagg Lake was a good start. Putting up permanent, albeit inadequate and misleading, warning signs is another good step. But public outrage over the tragedies at Scoggins Valley Park, and the County’s incompetent response and subsequent cover-up, should be just beginning.

The first issue should be to reveal and overturn decades of public policy intentionally meant to hide deadly danger from park visitors because of a horribly misguided fear of a possible lawsuit. Since at least 1990, County officials have refused to acknowledge the steep, vertical, hidden trench cut by Sain Creek at the park’s most popular designated swimming and wading area.

The County will object to me calling Sain Creek a designated wading and swimming area. In fact, the specific written intent of the policy against warnings in the 2004 master plan for the park was to deny that there are any designated swimming areas, out of fear of litigation. The reasoning, used repeatedly since, was that if you forbid swimming and wading or even post a warning sign at one spot, you are telling visitors that swimming and wading are safe in the rest of the lake.

The legal reasoning behind that policy is absurd on its face, but things get even worse. The entire time that officials have stubbornly refused to protect the public at Sain Creek, they have posted warning signs, written policies and even placed buoy lines and fences around the park, designating areas where swimming is prohibited. Those policies include much of the lake, and are enforced by the County’s police powers. Meanwhile, the County actively markets the park for swimming. When families visit the park to swim and wade, their options are limited, and the Sain Creek Picnic Area is the only developed area of the park without at least some restrictions on being in the water without a boat or water skis. County officials refuse to explain how that is not ipso facto designation of the gently sloping beach as a swimming area, putting county taxpayers at risk of enormous losses should the family of a drowning victim ever sue.

The County should release the formal legal analysis that formed the basis for this absurd policy and reverse it in writing immediately. It is unconscionable to invite children into extreme hidden danger and then publicly blame them for their actions if they drown or require rescue.

After the most recent drownings in August, the County again initially refused to take action, but then bowed to intense public anger by establishing committees to study the possibility of some sort of system to prevent future deaths. While nothing was etched in stone, we were told, some firm plans might be in place as early as May 2015. Even at that, the County outsourced planning to the Safe Kids Coalition, which has no staff, almost no money and no authority to take any action on its own.

Public officials went out of their way to deny that topography was a factor in the drownings. That statement was false. Most of the drownings and rescues at the lake occur in the late summer, when the deadly channel of Sain Creek is hidden by only inches of calm, murky water. The clear and imminent danger posed by this threat was magnified by the upcoming Labor Day Weekend and the extended forecast for unusually hot weather.

Outraged that officials refused to even post paper warning signs on the many sign boards at Sain Creek, local resident Michael Medill created cardboard warning signs of his own. To make it more difficult for County officials to remove them, as he knew they would, he bolted them to trees, the empty sign boards and to the elaborate gazebo. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office responded while KOIN-6 news cameras rolled. After journalists left, Michael Medill was told that he was not free to leave the park and was issued a citation to appear in court, facing a “presumptive fine” of $5,000.

At this point public outrage went national, and County officials went into hiding, again refusing to post signs and denying that Medill had been legally arrested. The County also told reporters that they were “unsure” if Medill’s signs had been removed, when in fact they knew that they had already been torn down.

Two days later, and exactly two weeks after the drownings, the County sent deputies to Sain Creek with crude paper warning signs and yellow crime scene tape. Unsure what to do with the crime scene tape, the deputies wrapped it around trees and picnic tables above the beach, only adding to the public’s confusion.

As public outrage grew, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney took to social media, not to help warn the public of the danger, but to defend its actions against Medill, posting the citation and suggesting that media outlets were being unfair in their coverage. The resulting comments mostly concerned the amount of the “presumptive fine” of $5,000. The County did not deny the prescribed fine.

County Commissioners Andy Duyck and Bob Terry joined the fray, condemning Medill for “grandstanding” and defending the County’s response to the drownings and arrest.

The next day, the County quietly dropped all charges against Medill and erected permanent warning signs at Sain Creek. County officials then made it clear that Medill’s actions and public outrage had played no part in erecting the signs instead of waiting until at least next summer as originally planned. However, Philip Bransford, a County spokesperson, already had told the unvarnished truth to a reporter for the News-Times of Forest Grove, which hit the streets while other officials continued their lies. In a very reasoned, uncritical interview, Bransford said that the signs were in response to public demands.

Branford’s courage created a change in the way County officials dealt with the still growing outrage. The next day the Washington County Sheriff’s Office admitted that it had in fact arrested Medill, but released him under his own recognizance. The “presumptive fine” listed on the citation by deputies, they said now, was a mistake, they told The Oregonian. It was not a fine at all, they said, but just the deputies’ way of telling Medill what his bail might have been had they booked him into jail. The actual potential maximum fine was not $5,000, but rather $6,250.

There should be a thorough and complete review of the County’s actions at Scoggins Valley Park and Henry Hagg Lake. This should not be an excuse for an expensive consultant report culminating in the inevitable conclusion by outside independent experts that the County acted appropriately. Instead, the County should use standard progressive discipline procedures. If current public officials are unable or unwilling to produce reports within a reasonable amount of time accepting responsibility for their actions, combined with detailed action plans for how they will improve their future performance, their employment should be terminated.

Sadly, even if the County does investigate, the public likely won’t hear anything but a vague statement that the case is closed and the report will not be released, citing the Oregon Supreme Court decision in Klamath County School District v Teamey and subsequent legislative action that effectively gutted much of Oregon’s Open Records Law by creating a loophole allowing officials to release only a vague summary of many otherwise public records.

Should the County refuse to investigate and release all findings, I hope that the state or federal government will at least investigate the possibility of legal action against the public officials who invited a family of four into the peaceful waters of Henry Hagg Lake, only to drown under the longstanding, criminally negligent policies of a bloated, unresponsive bureaucracy.