Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno now faces a second lawsuit accusing her of playing political favorites in deciding what ballot measures move forward in the state.
The latest suit, filed Wednesday, says Clarno acted improperly last month, when she rejected two proposals that would change state law, by requiring the state to transition to carbon-free sources of electricity by 2045. The suit asks a judge to reverse Clarno's decision and to allow backers of the proposals to collect signatures while the court case plays out.
At issue in the case is Clarno’s apparent conclusion that the two proposals were too broad and did not meet a constitutional requirement that ballot measures deal with a “single subject.” She used the same rationale in September, when she rejected three proposed measures that related to forest protections.
The secretary has so far been successful in defending her rationale. A Marion County judge ruled in November that she appropriately applied the law in rejecting the three forest-related measures.
That ruling is being appealed, but the decision might not bode well for the most recent challenge, which also will be heard in Marion County. To avoid a similar outcome, plaintiffs in the new suit have asked that the circuit court judge who previously agreed with Clarno, Daniel Wren, be disqualified from presiding over the case.
Clarno’s decisions have caused a growing showdown with groups seeking stronger environmental protections at the ballot, some of whom have suggested the secretary is siding with industry groups that formerly supported her as a state legislator. They accuse Clarno, the only Republican currently holding statewide office, of using her power to improperly waylay their efforts.
“We must not let this egregious abuse of power by Secretary of State Bev Clarno and Deputy Secretary Rich Vial continue,” said Eric Richardson, a plaintiff in the new lawsuit and executive director of the Eugene/Springfield chapter of the NAACP, in a press release. “Their actions are unconstitutional and run counter to Oregon’s proud history of citizen access to the ballot through the initiative system.”
Tera Hurst, executive director of the Renew Oregon, is the second plaintiff in the lawsuit. She accused Clarno of “wasting taxpayer money to protect the interests of the wealthy and powerful against the will of the people.”
Clarno's rulings have also been criticized by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who in a recent court brief argued at length that the secretary's analysis lacked an understanding of how courts have ruled in the past. Rosenblum, a Democrat, previously declined to defend Clarno's actions in court, leading the secretary of state's office to obtain pricey outside counsel.
Reached Wednesday, Deputy Secretary of State Rich Vial declined to comment on the lawsuit, which he said his office had expected.
"We've been pretty clear on the position we've taken," Vial said.
The two proposals that are the subject of the new lawsuit, initiative petitions 48 and 49, differ in their specifics but have the same goal of a carbon-free electricity sources in Oregon by 2045.
The proposals are part of a slate of options Renew Oregon and its allies hope to use as a political backstop: They are vowing to put them before voters if lawmakers don’t pass a strong climate bill in this year’s legislative session.
But IPs 48 and 49 also include a number of provisions that opponents have argued make them too broad. For instance, they both require that construction projects related to the new energy standards pay a prevailing wage, offer benefits and meet a number of other benchmarks.
In rejecting the proposals, Clarno did not specify precisely why she’d decided they did not qualify. However, she did highlight the requirement that ballot proposals must relate to only one subject, suggesting she agreed with opponents that the proposals are too expansive.