- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 3, 2016

WAITSBURG, Wash. (AP) - The mayor of the tiny southeast Washington town of Waitsburg has resigned amid questions about a potential water-bottling plant eyed by the Swiss multinational company Nestle.

Walt Gobel said he had the city’s interest and economic development in mind when he and the city administrator met confidentially with Nestle Waters North America earlier this year.

The company has been eyeing the town of 1,200 people, north of Walla Walla, for its clear spring water and as a possible site for a new $50 million bottling facility in the Pacific Northwest.

But some City Council members bristled when they learned that the two city officials had met with Nestle several times since February without their knowledge, the Union Bulletin (http://goo.gl/09P07E) reported. They were also shocked that Nestle contractors had also been scoping out the city’s springs to determine whether a project was feasible.

At its July 20 meeting the City Council ordered Nestle Waters to stop all exploratory work in the watershed until it evaluated the corporation’s interest. The Council did not outright dismiss a partnership with Nestle and negotiations are likely to continue, the newspaper reported.

Following that meeting some demonstrators called for the mayor to resign.

Nestle Waters said in an emailed statement Wednesday that it was surprised by these latest events but that “we respect the City of Waitsburg’s wishes to consider this opportunity as a community and do not want to be a distraction.”

In May, voters in Hood River County, Oregon, imposed a ban on commercial water bottling, blocking a plan in which Nestle would have built a water-bottling plant in Cascade Locks.

Those who supported the ballot measure worried about water scarcity and losing the community’s character. Town officials wanted the project for the economic boost it could bring to financially struggling Cascade Locks.

In his resignation letter Tuesday, Gobel said Nestle Waters initially asked him and City Administrator Randy Hinchliffe for confidentiality as they explored whether Waitsburg would be a good fit for a bottling plant.

He said they brought the issue to the City Council after refusing a second request by Nestle Waters for continued confidentiality because of “our concern of the appearance of secrecy.”

Nestle Waters said a potential facility would provide about 50 jobs and water for its Arrowhead Spring Water and Nestle Pure Life brands.

“We asked initially for legal confidentiality, which is standard practice in business, and we asked for that to the extent the municipality could allow,” Nestle Waters said in its statement. “However, we advocated early on for notification to the City Council as soon as the Mayor and City Manager felt was appropriate.”

Gobel told the Union-Bulletin that he and the city administrator were doing their job and pursuing economic development for the city. “It’s our obligation to follow leads, and until we get those facts how can you make an informed decision?”

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Information from: Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, http://www.union-bulletin.com

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