Lawyers for Metro, the Portland-area regional government, have rejected a controversial ballot measure aiming to reroute money meant for supportive housing programs toward emergency homeless shelters. They say the proposal in its current form violates the Oregon constitution.
The decision is a blow to the ambitions of People for Portland, a nonprofit pushing for the region’s elected leaders to dramatically change their approach to the homelessness crisis. In late March, the group proposed a November ballot measure that would redirect the bulk of the money from Metro’s voter-approved 2020 Homeless Services Measure toward shelter and require communities to enforce their anti-camping laws. The measure was instantly controversial with critics, who argued the plan would push the area’s homeless population out of sight into temporary shelter while offering little long-term support.
Carrie MacLaren, an attorney for the government agency that handles land use and other core services in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties, now says the contentious proposal can not appear on the November ballot — at least not in the form People for Portland organizers envisioned.
MacLaren pointed to three legal shortcomings in an April 8 letter to Multnomah County Elections Division Director Tim Scott. Two were technical. The proposed language did not include a basic phrase required by the Metro charter, known as the “ordaining” clause.” And the measure is supposed to include the entire statute voters are considering changing, so they can get the full context. According to MacLaren, some of the required statute is missing.
The meatier argument against the measure has to do with Article Four of the Oregon Constitution. In her letter to the Multnomah County election office, MacLaren wrote that Article Four gives Oregonians the right to initiate a ballot measure that creates legislation, but not make administrative changes. The People for Portland ballot measure, she continued, tweaked “administrative elements of an existing legal framework” and, therefore, is unconstitutional.
The attorney’s rejection puts the ball in People for Portland’s court. The group has seven business days to appeal the decision, per Oregon statute. The circuit court is supposed to rule “expeditiously” should the group choose to appeal.
It’s unclear if People for Portland will choose that path. The group posted a statement on Twitter Friday afternoon that accused Metro leaders of using delay tactics and inventing “novel legal theories” to keep voters from deciding the fate of the ballot measure. The group did not say if they would appeal the decision.
“This is not just about legal theory, it is a blatant attempt by Metro to force a court battle that will cost time and prevents the people from being able to gather signatures in order to qualify this popular measure in time for the November ballot,” the group wrote.
Metro communications director Neil Simon said MacLaren will not be commenting further due to the possibility of litigation down the road.
The Metro Homeless Service measure placed a 1% tax on high-income earners in Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah counties. It is expected to generate about $250 million annually for supportive housing services — services that help people at risk of homelessness remain in their housing. That includes case management, rent assistance and shelter. The measure passed with 58% support.
As currently drafted, the People for Portland ballot measure — titled Everyone Deserves Safe Shelter — would require at least three-quarters of the tax money raised by the 2020 ballot measure to be funneled instead toward emergency shelters. Counties would have to stick to that ratio until each has enough beds to shelter every person experiencing homelessness in the region and each city and town is “enforcing its own anti-camping ordinances.”
The proposal People for Portland wants to put before voters would also allow any resident within the three Metro counties to sue if they believe the measure is not being enforced.
The original housing ballot measure was crafted by HereTogether, a coalition of service providers, nonprofits, elected leaders, and community and business groups. HereTogether leaders have accused People for Portland of attempting to hijack the money intended to provide a long-term solution for the region’s homeless crisis.
“We appreciate the due diligence that Metro put into evaluating the proposal. The Metro attorney’s decision today is evidence that the measure was always more about politics than good policy,” the coalition said in a statement. “A poorly crafted ballot measure aimed at changing direction a year from now was never going to provide immediate relief for our unhoused neighbors.”