The fate of a small Oregon city hangs in the balance, as part of a flurry of bills that flew through the Oregon Legislature late last month but await final approval by Gov. Kate Brown.
Senate Bill 226 aims to disincorporate the city of Damascus, a Clackamas County community that largely soured on having a city government a decade after it formed to guard against encroaching urbanization.
As unique as Damascus’ history is, and as unusual as the 2019 session was — with Republican walkouts aimed at limiting the power of Democrats’ large majorities in both chambers— SB 226 had a bizarre legislative history.
Midway through the session, SB 226 was a placeholder bill. It had been introduced by Secretary of State Dennis Richardson before he died of cancer in February.
Then, May 1, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that a local vote from years before to disincorporate the city of Damascus was invalid. Before that ruling, Damascus had closed its city government, refunded taxes to property owners and shifted services to the county. The court decision remanded the details of what should happen next regarding Damascus’ status to the lower court.
As supporters of keeping Damascus a city organized an impromptu government, legislators responded by quickly drafting a bill to nail the door shut on the city — putting the text into SB 226.
It passed the Senate easily in the days before Republicans walked out of the chamber, with only one “no” vote. It faced little more opposition in the Oregon House, where it passed with 12 votes against while Republicans in the upper chamber were still hiding in Idaho. The bill now heads to the governor for her signature.
Before it’s signed, like countless other bills, it faces the last check for its legal status.
“Once a bill is sent to our office and before the governor makes the final decision to sign, her legal team reviews every bill for legal sufficiency (passes constitutional muster),” Brown’s interim press secretary Lisa Morawski wrote in an email.
For most bills, that step is perfunctory. And it could be for SB 226. But the last time the Legislature intervened in the Damascus story, it ended in the Court of Appeals ruling last May.
In 2015, legislators passed a law establishing a special election process for voters in Damascus to disincorporate by means of a simple majority vote — rather than the customary legal standard of getting the majority of all registered voters [a standard that Damascus disincorporation efforts had failed to reach in a previous election]. Damascus voters approved disincorporation in 2016 easily under the new standard the Legislature set.
In fact, as the Damascus bill was first debated in front of a legislative committee last month, senators questioned its legal integrity.
“I just want to make sure — have we checked the language so that we don’t end up in court again, to find out [if] it works?” asked Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, who was also part of the effort to help Damascus dissolve in 2015.
Between the Appeals Court ruling in early May and that legislative hearing in June, supporters of restoring Damascus to city status brought back members of the previous city council who were still around and named James DeYoung “mayor of Damascus,” a title that some argue is illegitimate.
DeYoung and his supporters view SB 226 as an anti-government effort led by Democrats.
In an email to OPB, volunteer city manager Richard Carson said they’re reaching out for help in stopping the dissolution of the city. Carson is hoping to enlist the highest-ranking Republican in state office, and a person with jurisdiction over elections: Secretary of State Bev Clarno, the person Brown appointed to the position after Richardson died.
By Tuesday afternoon, Clarno’s deputy Rich Vial said supporters of keeping Damascus a city had not reached out to the secretary of state’s office.
“[We] [h]aven’t heard anything so far,” Vial said.
“We were certainly aware of the bill, but did not follow it in detail during its journey.”
Assuming the governor signs it into law, supporters of having Damascus as a city again expect to challenge the law all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court.