Over a cup of coffee at a Damascus breakfast spot, Chris Hawes laments the nine difficult years the town of 10,000 has been a city.
“And it’s been divisive enough that we’ve had people who have changed church congregations because of internal strife between members,” says Hawes. “We’ve had families that don’t gather because they’re on two different sides of whatever issue. We have neighbors that don’t talk any more.”
Hawes is now leading the campaign to dissolve the city. The local measure asks voters in Damascus whether they want to disincorporate after nine years as city. It’s the latest wrinkle in a long-running conflict over the future of the Clackamas County community.
Measure 3-433 is the latest round in a decade or more of conflicts here.
Damascus residents voted to become a city in 2004. That was two years after the Metro regional government included Damascus in the largest urban growth boundary expansion in state history. Those two changes meant a new Damascus city council had to draft a long-term plan for how the city would grow.
The prospect of greater density, more traffic, and changes to existing neighborhoods has so far thwarted city efforts to craft a plan that both the local public and state regulators can support.
Chris Hawes says regional plans to develop Damascus were flawed from the beginning. He says building city neighborhoods across the rocky hills and valleys of Damascus is so expensive, that it might never happen. And that makes city property taxes unnecessary. Dissolving the city would save taxpayers money, he argues.
“The net would be a $2.53 per thousand of assessed value savings, which is about $600 or so for a house that’s assessed at $200,000.”
Hawes says the city council has helped his cause through missteps such as a hefty severance it agreed to pay a former city manager.
But the conservative-leaning Hawes faces opposition from Republicans. Those include county commission members John Ludlow and Tootie Smith, the party’s county chair, John Lee, and planning commissioner, James Anderson.
James Anderson, runs a dental practice in Gresham, but he lives in Damascus where he serves on the planning commission.
Anderson is proud of the commission’s efforts on a long-term growth plan.
“That is the one bright spot in the whole city process, because the city council has been so dysfunctional, it’s been almost embarassing,” says Anderson. “So there’s not much to defend.”
But Anderson says the city has had some success getting Metro to loosen some land-use restrictions, as Damascus crafts growth plans. Anderson says that process isn’t over. If the city dissolves, Anderson is skeptical about how Clackamas County would handle planning.
“Metro needs to be dealt with,” says Anderson. “The city is going to be better able to deal with it. If we go back to county control, then we’re just relying on the county commissioners to make some of the decisions that we’ve already stepped through, and are we going to be happy with the people who are going to run the plan process at the county.”
Driving through Damascus, the argument plays out as a “lesser of two evils” campaign. Yard signs in favor of dissolving the city blame the local government for wasting tax dollars. But the signs pushing against the initiative warn that without the city, Metro and Clackamas County would wield more power. Jim Moore teaches politics at Pacific University in Forest Grove.
“The argument for staying a city is ‘We may screw up, but they’re our screw-ups, and we get to make the choices,” says Moore. “That’s a pretty powerful rallying cry, especially if you look at the history of the United States. But the other side is basically ‘Boy, this is getting in the way of our freedoms, and I also don’t like how our tax money is being spent.’ That’s also pretty powerful, especially here on the West Coast.”
In the end, both sides believe they have a populist message that can appeal to people regardless of their specific politics.
And the November 5 election will be also be a test of grassroots strength, especially for the side hoping to dissolve the city. Unlike most other races in Oregon, disincorporating a city requires more than just a majority of voters who take part in an election. To dissolve the city, proponents need more than 50 percent of all the registered voters.
As political analyst Jim Moore put it, that’s a hurdle that might be too high for the city’s opponents to clear.
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OPB | Feb. 22, 2017