BCC nixes vote on light rail

Attorneys: TriMet could sue if county reneged on $25 million
by: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN The audience at the packed three-hour public hearing Thursday, July 28, before the Board of County Commissioners, who ended up voting 3-1 not to refer the county's $25-million commitment to the project to voters. Attorneys warned the commissioners that the commitment is legally binding and, if they reneged on their agreement, TriMet could sue.

There was no clear audience consensus July 28 during a packed hearing on letting voters decide whether to honor Clackamas County's $25-million pledge to TriMet to pay for light rail through Milwaukie. But when the smoke cleared three hours later, the commission voted 3-1 against giving them the chance.

It was the first public hearing on the funding commitment since the Board of County Commissioners promised the money to TriMet back in January 2010.

The commission vote effectively halts efforts to put the issue on the ballot anytime soon. Commissioner Paul Savas was the lone no vote.

Nine different commissioners have voted in favor of the county's piece of the light rail project over the years, pointed out Strategic Policy Administrator Dan Chandler, who said staffers believe that the county as a whole will benefit from it.

County counsel Stephen Madkour called the pledge 'a binding, enforceable agreement' that put Clackamas County on the hook in writing for either payment or interest charges by Sept. 2, 2013.

'The fact that this board is of a different composition than it was in 2010 is of no consequence,' he said.

According to Madkour, failure to comply with the funding commitment would be a 'material breach of contract,' which would open the county to TriMet lawsuits. When a board enters into a contract, it is not legislation, so he noted that it's not subject 'to initiative or referendum attack.'

As the specter of litigation rose up, many argued that disagreement over the light rail project doesn't matter at this point. Others would look forward to a lawsuit from TriMet as an alternative to urban renewal debt.

'That would be an exciting adventure, especially for people like me,' said Steve Schopp of Tualatin.

Dozens of people spoke on the issue, with those in favor of honoring the agreement slightly outnumbered by those advocating for a public vote.

Milwaukie resident Annette Guarriello slammed the 'intense passion' of critics who cite the potential for light rail to bring in more crime, saying, 'You have the ingredients for gangs already firmly secure in this area.'

To illustrate her point, Guarriello carried a homemade poster showing the gun shops in strip malls along McLoughlin Boulevard.

Milwaukie City Councilor Greg Chaimov couldn't offer a solution to the county's funding bind, but he echoed warnings by county attorneys that a public vote would be counterproductive.

'Don't let TriMet do it on the cheap,' Chaimov said. 'I understand that there are a number of residents who don't want the line, but the line is coming.'

Les Poole of Oak Grove said he expected there would have been more citizens advocating a public vote if the county had held its meeting in the evening. The county also received about a dozen written comments on the light rail issue, but these were tilted slightly in the other direction, mostly favoring the line.

Nevertheless, Poole said to cheers from the crowd, 'There is a huge silent majority' who don't weigh in at all.

Fred Nelligan, the Oak Lodge representative on light rail issues, saw the silent majority showing up at more than 200 community meetings trying to get the best project possible. Nelligan said he was becoming frustrated by people working backward, rather than working to improve the project.

'Let's all live in the present and build for the future,' he said.

Savas pointed out that the only way to really test public feeling on light rail was to bring it to a vote, which the commission could have used in an advisory context and would not force the county to break its contract.

'I'm concerned that we're going to be getting the short end of the stick on this,' Savas said.

In explaining her vote, Chair Charlotte Lehan referred to the testimony of trade unions, warning that the election would waste money and that the county could lose trust on any contracts it makes in the future.

'I wear this 'Jobs' pin lots of places, lots of days, wherever I go...and I take these 'Jobs' pins seriously,' Lehan said. 'We can't guarantee that those jobs will all be in Clackamas County. … but we know from the demographics that many of them will be.'

Saying that he'd like to see more than construction jobs, Savas said the Clackamas Town Center area has economically stagnated since the arrival of light rail a couple years ago.

'These things take time,' retorted Commissioner Jim Bernard.

Commissioners discussed a future work session to organize a county survey on the issue of the $25 million, but set no specific date to do so.