Clackamas County leaders want Oregon lawmakers to intervene and settle confusion over the status of the city of Damascus once and for all.
Lawmakers are looking to find a quick solution that would pass legal muster, and have necessary political support, in the waning weeks of a busy legislative session.
It’s a tall order, considering that charting Damascus’ future has been a challenge for city, county, regional and state officials since the turn of the century.
Damascus’ discussions of incorporating as a city go back nearly two decades, to the Metro regional government’s plans to encircle the Clackamas County community in the region’s urban growth boundary. Residents banded together to form a city in 2004 so they could have more control over how their area would grow.
But for a number of reasons — conflict on the city council, disagreement over state-required comprehensive plans, questions around the appropriate levels of taxation — support for the city of Damascus waned.
Damascus residents voted on a measure to authorize disincorporation in 2013, and while a majority of voters who cast ballots sided with getting rid of the city, turnout wasn’t high enough to reach the state’s high threshold to disincorporate: half of all eligible voters needed to participate — not just a majority of participating voters in the election.
Opponents of cityhood responded by calling on the Oregon Legislature to intervene — and lawmakers did, passing a bill intended to exempt Damascus from that “half of all eligible voters” requirement.
In 2016, Damascus voters again approved dissolving their city. City officials responded by clearing out the town coffers, with millions of dollars going to Clackamas County to cover public services and refunds to property owners.
Fight To Keep Damascus A City
But supporters of Damascus remaining a city challenged the 2015 Oregon law used to lower the bar for disincorporation. Some residents of the city contended that in spite of the conflict and challenges of running the new city, that it remained preferable to disincorporation and allowing county leaders and nearby cities to manage the community.
And they won. Earlier this month, the Oregon Court of Appeals agreed with their objections and invalidated the 2016 vote.
The court found the legislature’s attempt at exempting the Damascus vote from the statutory process of disincorporating didn’t actually work.
That ruling led to a quick reconstitution of the Damascus City Council. City leaders are exploring contracting out city services such as police and planning, possibly with Clackamas County.
Advocates of keeping Damascus a city say their reasoning hasn’t fundamentally changed since the original vote to incorporate in 2004.
“We need to protect ourselves and our own destiny,” Jim DeYoung, the chief advocate of staying a city and now the recently appointed mayor, said last week on OPB’s “Think Out Loud.”
Legislative Intervention, Again
But government officials near Damascus say that too much has happened since the city dissolved to bring it back.
In a letter to 21 state legislators, Clackamas County commissioners emphasized that the vote in 2016, and steps that local officials have taken since, are reasons not to re-form Damascus as a city. The letter reminds legislators that city funds have been disbursed — Damascus has no money. Plus, neighboring Happy Valley has already moved in on Damascus from the west, annexing more than 1,000 acres.
“The Court of Appeals ruling has led to general confusion among our public and uncertainty among our local and regional partners … ” the county leaders wrote.
The letter makes the county commission’s bottom line clear — that bringing the city of Damascus back is impossible: “[I]t is not possible to restore the city to its pre-disincorporation state.”
Democratic lawmakers, who control both legislative chambers this session, are talking to legislative counsel on a bill to essentially affirm the disincorporation of Damascus in a way that resolves the legal problems presented by the Appeals Court ruling. According to a legislative staffer, the bill would not lead to another public vote. Instead it would “ratify” the vote conducted in 2016.
Lawmakers are well into the legislative session, scheduled to end in late June, but it’s still procedurally possible to pass an attempted fix. Legislators are looking to place the Damascus re-incorporation bill into an existing bill — a maneuver that’s possible so long as the bill it goes into has a “relating to” clause broad enough to cover the issues at hand. Lawmakers appear to be eyeing Senate Bill 226, whose title includes “relating to elections.” The bill was initially introduced by Secretary of State Dennis Richardson to deal with rules governing candidates for political office.
SB 226 has been sitting in the Senate Rules Committee for more than four months.
The question is whether there’s time to craft the statutory language, find political support and get the bill moving to legally dissolve Damascus before legislators go home for good.