Cannon Beach food tax faces recount

Dec. 3—CANNON BEACH — A food tax is headed for a recount.

Patrick Nofield, who owns Escape Lodging in Cannon Beach, cited the contentions surrounding the tax proposal, the close margin after election night and concerns about city officials opening a ballot drop box in October in asking for a recount.

The 5% tax on prepared food passed in November by only four votes — 379 to 375.

"I just think it's reasonable and appropriate," Nofield said.

The recount will be done by hand and will take place on Wednesday at the Judge Guy Boyington Building in Astoria.

The food tax would apply to prepared food sold at restaurants and similar businesses. It is expected to generate around $1.7 million annually, revenue that would be split between the city and the Cannon Beach Rural Fire Protection District.

The city hopes to use the money to fund infrastructure projects, including a new City Hall and police station. The fire district wants to use its cut to help fund operations as calls for emergency services continue to rise.

Nofield feels the tax was pushed through and is especially concerned about an incident where Karen LaBonte, the city's public works director, opened a ballot box at City Hall prior to the election.

LaBonte had come under a state ethics probe earlier this year related to the city's use of a design company she and her husband own to make signs during the coronavirus pandemic. The state found LaBonte should have informed the city of a potential conflict of interest in writing ahead of any transaction with Cannon Beach Design Co. LaBonte was fined $1,000. City Manager Bruce St. Denis has called the violation a technicality.

But the implications are big for Nofield.

"Frankly, I feel like the integrity of the election should be questioned," he said. Given how contentious the tax proposal has been, he doesn't know why a city official did not seek guidance from the county elections division before opening the ballot box.

St. Denis said voters had not been able to access the ballot box at City Hall over a weekend in October and had stuck their ballots into a crack in the access door. City officials worried the ballots could be damaged by heavy rainfall that weekend. They did not have a way to reach county elections staff outside of normal business hours, so they decided to unlock the box with a key provided by the county and put the ballots inside the drop box.

St. Denis was present with LaBonte when the drop box was opened. St. Denis notified city councilors, the city attorney and the Oregon Secretary of State's Office and later discussed the matter with county elections officials.

"The county noted that the city was correct to have two persons present when the box was opened and stated the city did not violate any rules," St. Denis wrote in an email to the City Council explaining what had happened.

The food tax was a divisive issue for the city.

Many people who testified at City Council meetings against the tax said they supported finding a new source of revenue for the fire district. However, they did not trust the city and questioned the timing of the tax as businesses continued to reel from the upheaval caused by the pandemic and related supply chain issues.

If the tax still passes following the recount, it will not begin to appear on customers' bills until July.