Voters in Yamhill County showed strong signs Tuesday they would keep Chair Lindsay Berschauer, after accusations her deeply partisan politics have cost the county money and hurt employee morale.
Early election results show 52.4% voted no on the question whether to recall Berschauer, while 47.6% voted yes. About 44.3% of the county’s registered voters cast a ballot. Those results are likely to change somewhat in coming days, as elections officials receive new ballots under a new state law. It’s unclear any such votes can alter the result.
Berschauer’s likely election victory in 2020 gave the three-member Yamhill County Board of Commissioners a more sharply conservative lean. It’s the latest battle in an ongoing fight between liberal and conservative blocs in Yamhill County, and has its roots in the demise of a multimodal path.
A Republican political consultant and member of the group Timber Unity, Berschauer ran for the board in 2020 largely on a platform of killing the controversial Yamhelas Westsider Trail slated for a 12-mile stretch of land that once held a railroad.
The trail had been in the works for years, and Berschauer won office by aligning with a group of farmers who argued it would violate personal property rights. Opponents challenging the project already had convinced the state’s Land Use Board of Appeals that the county had not adequately addressed questions about how it would affect adjacent farms.
Berschauer and fellow Yamhill County Commissioner Mary Starrett, another staunch conservative, used their majority on the board to end the county’s pursuit of the project early last year. The county forfeited grant funding for the project, and Starrett and Berschauer agreed that the county pay tens of thousands of dollars in opponents’ legal fees.
“That’s a main driving force behind this,” Berschauer said Monday. “But also, the progressive group of activists in this community have kind of seen this as an opportunity to undo the election of 2020 and replace me with someone that is not only pro-trail, but progressive in a sense.”
Berschauer didn’t only cast a decisive vote to end the county’s pursuit of the trail, she openly and aggressively accused county employees who’d been working on the project of fudging facts to move the matter forward. Proponents of the recall argue Berschauer committed two unpardonable sins: She wasted money by abandoning the project, and showed a toxic brand of partisan politics that was unbefitting of a public official.
“We expect to be represented from this position in a nonpartisan way,” said Lynnette Shaw, a former Democratic legislative candidate who has helped run the recall campaign in concert with other liberal factions in the county. “This has been very much a conservative county for years and years and years. We’ve always had a conservative board and no one’s attempted to recall anybody [else].”
The reasons recall proponents want Berschauer gone extend well beyond the trail.
They say Berschauer lost taxpayers millions of dollars by approving lower payments to the county by a company that operates a McMinnville landfill, another issue in which she joined Starrett.
Recall backers suggest she doxed Shaw, the recall campaign lead, by circulating contact information that was posted publicly on the state’s campaign finance website.
They argue Berschauer helped delay distribution of federal COVID-19 funding by training her attention instead on partisan policies like refusing to enforce state gun control laws and blocking some teens from getting vaccinated without a parent’s consent.
And they suggest that Berschauer might be using her private consulting firm to reap money from entities that also have business before the county. Berschauer flatly denied that point, and has contested the campaign’s other claims.
“I am not running my political consulting business or [doing] any type of consulting on the side,” she said. “I don’t have time to. This is a full-time job.”
Shaw and others acknowledge they have no proof Berschauer has mixed her public and private work, but say they are suspicious based on Berschauer reporting her private business, Leona Consulting, as a source of income on public forms.
“The people of Yamhill County have spoken,” the recall petition used to force Tuesday’s election said. “Commissioner Berschauer’s extremism, fiscal mismanagement, and bad-faith representation are at odds with Yamhill County values. She must be recalled.’
While proponents heralded the recall effort as meaningful pushback against an extremist politician, their points lack the outright malfeasance or criminal activity that have helped some past recalls succeed in Oregon.
Berschauer also hasn’t been hammered for the sort of racially inflammatory language that spurred a recall of former Oregon City Mayor Dan Holladay in 2020. Some claims made in that successful campaign did center on the kind of good governance arguments that Berschauer’s foes are making.
The campaign to unseat Berschauer is just the latest deeply divisive recall decision in Yamhill County.
In January, voters within the Newberg School District opted to keep two members of the district’s board of directors in their roles. The two members, board chair Dave Brown and vice-chair Brian Shannon, are part of a conservative majority on the board that enacted a new policy restricting “controversial” speech by teachers, including hanging pride flags or Black Lives Matter signs, while in the classroom. The two men also voted to fire the district’s superintendent without cause, prompting a response from state lawmakers.
Both men survived the recall attempt by roughly four points, in an election that saw high turnout in the district.
As of Tuesday morning, there were indications Berschauer also might retain her seat. The latest tally of ballots counted by the Yamhill County Clerk’s Office showed registered Republicans, who outnumber Democrats in the county, turning out at a higher rate. That’s likely a positive sign for Berschauer, though early leads can be erased by late returns. It’s also hard to parse thousands of ballots received by voters not affiliated with either party.
As of Monday evening, elections officials had accepted ballots from more than 37% of the county’s 74,316 registered voters. If the election draws the interest of the January recall in Newberg, they could ultimately field ballots from nearly 60% of voters.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Berschauer said. “The Republican vote has been returning higher each day.”
But Shaw, with the recall campaign, argued Democrats aren’t alone in tiring of Berschauer’s politics.
“We’ve stood on the doorsteps of thousands, tens of thousands of people,” she said. “People who voted for her feel hoodwinked.”
Whether or not the recall has succeeded might not be clear until well after the first results drop around 8 p.m. Tuesday. Lawmakers last year passed a law requiring elections officials to accept ballots up to a week after Election Day, so long as they were postmarked by Election Day. Ballots also must be accepted if they have no postmark at all, something Yamhill County Clerk Brian Van Bergen said was somewhat common in January’s recall election.
It all adds a new degree of unpredictability to Tuesday’s vote, Van Bergen said.
“All the way through election night, it will feel and look really normal from the last 25 years of vote-by-mail,” he said. “We have no idea what to expect as those ballots come in through the mail after Election Day.”