Newberg, Ore. – A growing group of equestrians in northwest Oregon are calling attention to what they say are serious safety concerns involving one of the only designated park equestrian trails open to horses in Yamhill County.
The park, known as the Bob & Crystal Rilee Park & Farmhouse, was a 400+ acre property donated by a trust to the Chealem Parks & Recreation Division (CPRD).
The increasing attention from equestrians has also brought light to the discovery that a now-former director and other officials had allegedly misused district assets through free use of the district’s golf course, as well as friends and family. The now former elected board member, Don Loving, is also a current and registered lobbyist in the State of Oregon.
The discovery– which led to a preliminary investigation by the Oregon Government Ethics Commission (OGEC)– contributed to Loving’s ouster in a recent election just months ago.
Loving, along with district superintendent Don Clements, have also faced numerous allegations by equestrian advocates of engaging in what they said was unfair treatment of those sharing their viewpoints, including during public meetings.
He said the allegations of unfair treatment were simply due to his differing views and support of allowing bikers to have half of the Bob & Crystal Rilee Park. He also denied to Equestrian Media Group that he ever allowed anyone other than himself to get free rounds of golf.
The timing of the OGEC was “a politically motivated attack,” said Loving.
Clements has been the unelected head of CPRD for a record 38 years. In 2017, after 32 years as the head of the park district, Clements was awarded for professional achievement by the Oregon Recreation & Park Association. Loving was also a former reporter for the Newberg Graphic who wrote the story announcing Clements’ appointment to lead CPRD back in the 1980’s.
Loving himself later became a long-serving board member who was first elected in 1991, serving over 3 decades until he lost reelection after coming in last during a recent special election, receiving only 14.96% of the vote between five people running for two board seats.
Two of the newly elected board members, Matthew Smith and Jason Fields, received 22.16% and 23.95% of the vote respectively in a Yamhill County Special District Election on May 16th.
The ethics complaint involving Loving stems from his self-admitted use of the district golf course for free, a benefit discovered to be available to public officials at CPRD, despite there being no formal benefits package or policy. The allegations were first brought to light by Hunter Wylie who filed a report with the OGEC and then announced his findings during a CPRD public meeting.
Wylie is also part of the Pickleball Advisory Committee for CPRD itself, but doesn’t have a direct personal interest in the dispute between equestrians and biking groups at the Bob & Crystal Rilee Park.
An attorney for CPRD later maintained that Loving’s free use of the golf course was not illegal. An investigator later recommended a formal investigation to the OGEC which was discussed during an executive session on July 14th. The commissioners ultimately voted 5-3 against a motion to pursue further investigation against Loving individually.
Some citizens have called on Loving to pay back part of the free golf he obtained for friends and family, along with himself. According to Wylie, records over the course of 33 months allegedly showed Loving obtained approximately $5,000 in personal benefit, but the records didn’t cover the many years Loving allegedly enjoyed free golf. Loving also maintained that friends or family paid a special guest rate.
According to the CPRD website, “[Loving] was also a driving force behind the creation of the Chehalem Glenn Golf Course.”
The OGEC records indicated that while Loving reported there was a CPRD policy to an investigator allowing the use of facilities for free, no actual policy was ultimately found. The OGEC details revealed that a benefit package could be established by the district for its future board members and employees, or by being put to local voters to decide if they want to grant such benefits for free or reduced costs.
OGEC Commissioners also pointed out that other officials had enjoyed the same benefits as Loving. Due to the potential scale of involved persons, OGEC dismissed the recommended action of a more detailed investigation into Loving individually, while appearing to signal that the district needed to make corrections.
Many locals had said it was long overdue and have been calling for much-needed changes in leadership, a feeling that was shared even by some who felt great things had been accomplished by the work of officials and board members like Clements and Loving.
The Bob & Crystal Rilee Park was gifted out of trust almost a decade ago. According to many familiar with the donation and the Rilee family themselves, along with corroborating public records with CPRD; the donation and use of trails were primarily intended for hikers, equestrians, and agriculture use and education. While not obligated by law, the records appear to make it clear that CPRD intended to honor its commitment and make new investments that supported that use.
Proponents say the treatment of the park has been opposite on contrary to those promises and feel that if CPRD continues to stray from past promises, it would seriously jeopardize the district’s integrity and likely make other generous donors question potential donations and support for CPRD, if not other special park districts generally.
During the pandemic, the park started to become a hotspot for bikes, which promptly led to safety issues in the park. Past debate ultimately led to CPRD splitting usage of the park which was conveniently divided in half by NE Parrett Mountain Rd. The west side was designated for equestrians, while the east side was designated for bikers. Hikers are permitted on both sides.
Despite this effort, equestrian proponents have continued to highlight issues and present evidence that many bikers have continued to violate the park rules while riding on the west side, presenting many safety challenges.
They claim the majority of the trails are not suitable for mixed-use that is used in other public places, as the steep terrain and undergrowth often lead to horses and bikers running into each other without warning.
Proponents on the respective sides of equestrians and bikers, as well as others in the middle, have been actively proposing several differing solutions. Several sources also said CPRD has ignored the ongoing violations and provided zero enforcement of the park rules.
Ryann Reinhofer, a local resident whose property is adjacent to the park, spoke to Equestrian Media Group about the ongoing issues and how she started getting involved a year ago. Reinhofer’s early efforts involved preparing a presentation in September 2022 before the CPRD Board, bringing attention to the continued issues of safety and violations by bikers.
Reinhofer is also the principal broker for Thoroughbred Real Estate Group. Equestrian Media Group went out recently with Reinhofer on horseback to see first-hand the dangers that she and others have continued to call attention to.
During that ride, clear evidence of bike tracks was seen on the trails, despite bikes indeed being banned. Vehicles with empty bike racks were also seen in parking lots on the park’s west side. The other potential dangers claimed by Reinhofer and other equestrian proponents were clearly evident after entering the forested trails.
“This is a disaster waiting to happen, and the equestrians familiar with the park and issues know this is a ticking time bomb where somebody’s going to get seriously hurt or killed,” said Reinhofer.
“You’re getting to see now, these trails on this side are in steep terrain, they’re narrow, with ravines and switchbacks, and blind corners with the thick brush. It isn’t like most other open and well-maintained places where mixed-use with those on bikes works, and these kids on bikes are also at risk of getting hurt if they come flying around a corner straight into a horse,” said Reinhofer.
The same day Equestrian Media Group spoke to Brian Bowman who was one of the leaders of the local National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) group that he said was based in Lake Oswego
The group happened to be holding their weekly ride with many of their youth of middle and high school age on the east side of the park, which is currently open to bikers. Bowman said he didn’t think there was much of an issue, and also said he had not heard of many incidents of bikers actually riding on the west side.
We explained our findings of fresh bike tracks just that day to Bowman, as well as numerous equestrians explaining they frequently would see kids riding on the west side, who then said that it was unlikely the bikers were part of their group.
When asked if members of their group could be going on the equestrian trails on different nights of the week, Bowman said he didn’t think so, but said they would speak to their members if they received information that someone affiliated with the group was violating park rules.
Bowman said efforts to bring public attention to Loving’s ethics issues involving the golf course were what he described as a “smear campaign” by equestrian interests, despite the issues having been revealed by Wylie whose interest revolved around pickleball.
One of the allegations of unfair treatment by equestrian proponents included an incident where Superintendant Clements admitted during a public meeting that he provided the biking group permission to hold an impromptu event in the park on both the west and east side for a weekend. The request and permission from Clements happened through a few text message exchanges.
Reinhofer and other equestrians said the biking group didn’t have to go through the normal processes within the district to sanction an event, which called into question the extension of special favors to the group. They also raised concerns about the biking group having obtained any required event insurance that may have been required as part of such a process.
Equestrian proponents also said that when they had requested through normal channels to hold a simple volunteer work party, CPRD went as far as saying that each person would be required to undergo background checks.
The growing attention to the issues being faced by equestrians has led Amber Rosenberry, who is currently Ms. Oregon 2023, to signal her own concerns. She plans to address CPRD officials at a public meeting scheduled for September 28th. Rosenberry, herself an avid equestrian, has also received public attention in her calls for Oregon to improve what she said are lacking anti-stalking laws.
Reinhofer and others have expressed they are hopeful the recent shakeup with the elected CPRD Board will result in more accountability and decisive actions that serve the public and local voters.
A public meeting of the CPRD Board of Directors is scheduled for this Thursday, September 28th at 6pm at its administration office located at 125 S Elliott Rd in Newberg, Oregon. An agenda and the ability to join by webinar is available online. One of the primary discussion topics for the board involves the Bob & Crystal Rilee Park.
Records Requests with CPRD
CPRD has recently denied both fee waiver and fee reduction requests pertaining to public records requests made by Equestrian Media Group. CPRD officials refused to explain their reason for the denial despite our request to raise clear public interest and benefit reasons as outlined under Oregon public records law.
Equestrian Media Group then asked CPRD to both explain the reason for the denial and who actually made the denials, and also pointed out that CPRD’s Public Records Policy doesn’t actually appear to comply with Oregon law by explaining how it actually accesses fees on public records requests.
CPRD’s public spokesperson Kat Ricker ignored the question in a follow-up by again restating the denial, saying in part, “CPRD has considered your request for a waiver or reduction of fees and has decided not to grant a waiver or reduction of fees.”
Ricker, along with Superintendent Clements, have ignored repeated requests for specifics on the justification for the denials and who actually made the decision.
Our requests for free waivers and reductions were based on our belief that the fees were a bit arbitrary and were not made in line with any established policy outlined under ORS 192.324(7)(b) which states, “The amounts of and the manner of calculating fees that the public body charges for responding to requests for public records.”
The policy document provided by CPRD simply stated that “CPRD will review the request and calculate a good faith cost estimate based on the information available,” but did not appear to outline the amounts and manner as required by Oregon law. Officials ignored our inquiries requesting more details when pointing to the statute.
The response also raises serious questions as multiple sources have alleged that CPRD officials have previously provided records when requested through informal channels at their offices.
A second public records request from Equestrian Media Group went on to seek records related specifically to past requests in order to gain a clear understanding of CPRD’s handling of requests and fee waivers. We have also submitted a records request with the Yamhill County District Attorney’s Office seeking records of any submitted appeals related to a fee waiver or actual record denials by CPRD.
Equestrian Media Group now intends to implore the CPRD Board of Directors to intervene in the handling of the requests by CPRD officials. If the Board of Directors does not intervene Equestrian Media Group is likely to appeal to the Yamhill County District Attorney, although we intend to pay some of the fees while we seek appeal in order to avoid delay in obtaining records that may provide further light to ongoing issues.
Note: This story was updated shortly after publication to include details after Don Loving contacted Equestrian Media Group
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