UPDATE • Fight mounting over public financing of county projects to hit Nov. 8 ballot
Clackamas County Clerk Sherry Hall said on the afternoon of Aug. 23 that 'it was close' but activists have been successful in referring urban renewal to the public's scrutiny.
Petitioners turned in nearly 12,000 signatures to the Clackamas County Elections office Aug. 10 for a public vote on new urban renewal proposals. And, they say, the signatures represent a mere fraction of the anger simmering out there about the governmental financing mechanism.
Chief petitioner John Williams, a former mayor of Oregon City, has tried before to gather enough signatures for an urban renewal ballot measure. In dropping off fat packets of signature sheets last Wednesday, he credited the relative ease in educating registered voters and potential volunteers on the issue.
'Before, it was hard to get enough people to know what you're talking about when you mention urban renewal, but now people are fired up,' Williams said.
Another petition drive still collecting signatures seeks to send urban renewal bonding to a public vote in Oregon City, where the issue came to a head in the months before developer Fred Bruning abandoned The Rivers project in June.
Among other reasons Williams cited for people signing the petition:
• Some are disturbed that Commissioner Paul Savas' motion was not seconded when he tried to get Clackamas County to refer any funding plan for its $25-million contribution to Milwaukie light rail to the voters.
• Certain citizens oppose the preference of some Clackamas County elected officials to pay for light rail through a new urban renewal district in the Oak Grove area.
• They see 'urban renewal creeping in as a way to get around limits on public spending.'
• Clackamas Fire has criticized new urban renewal districts because they can limit revenue for combating and preventing fires in rapidly growing areas such as Clackamas Town Center.
• Clackamas County's idea to trump Williams' petition with its own referendum inspired more signatures.
County commissioners have until Sept. 8 to vote for a competing referendum and have directed attorney Scot Sideras to craft a resolution for consideration this week. Commissioners have been concerned about the lack of local control if there were countywide votes on urban renewal, so Sideras is writing a potential measure that would ask for voter approval within the proposed urban renewal district; the measure getting the most votes would prevail.
On Monday, Aug. 15, Hall said that, due to formatting errors that forced the Elections Office to throw out several signature sheets, an initial sampling showed about 600 fewer signatures than the 9,378 required. Hall's office planned to take a second sampling and average them for an overall total.
This Tuesday, Hall said that a manual count of the signature sheets found the required number of signatures with just a few sheets left over.
Since the failure of the Sellwood bridge fee in May, the state's finance records suggest campaigns opposing an urban renewal vote may already be mounting. Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen, Clackamas Commissioner Ann Lininger and Charlotte Lehan's campaign committees each donated $1,000 to the pro-fee political action committee Clackamas County Citizens for Jobs and Safety, which in turn donated $5,000 to the Oregonians to Maintain Community Standards PAC.
'We might have a bit of a dog in that fight,' said Oregon City Mayor Doug Neeley. 'I'd like to see some sort of transit system coming in Oregon City, whether it be light rail or electric trolley, so urban renewal used for the general development of the McLoughlin corridor could help.'
The 'Your right to vote' committee for Oregon City urban renewal has until July 2013 to collect 2,510 signatures for a proposed change to the city charter.
Although they count hundreds already, the petitioners plan to take their time in collecting the signatures.
'The way I see it is that initiative petition we're working on is oriented to the future. This is a legacy that Oregon City could leave to future generations, regardless of whether something comes up immediately following the date when we're able to turn in the signatures,' said Dave Prideaux, one of the chief petitioners. The other chief petitioners are John Kevin Hunt and Barbara Renken.
A requirement for voter approval for urban renewal bonds was an issue while The Rivers was still on the table.
'The two issues were linked before, and when Bruning backed out, they're no longer linked-but there's still a history,' Prideaux said. 'The community at large needs a chance to voice its opinion. The bottom line for me is that the Urban Renewal Commission has the authority to obligate the taxpayers to 130 million tax ceiling, and it's just common sense to me that citizens ought to have the right to vote on significant debt.'
Mayor Doug Neeley said passage of such a measure wouldn't completely negate the Urban Renewal Commission's ability to do business, but he argues it would significantly hinder its ability to benefit the city economically.
'It wouldn't be the death knell to urban renewal funding, but it would a more arduous way to do it,' Neeley said. 'This will make developers that would benefit the city, for which a tax increment would eventually create more jobs, I don't think that these developers would be able to wait for the process.'
Prideaux, 66, moved to Oregon City in 1983, which happens to be the same year that the city first created an urban renewal agency.
'It's pretty much a grassroots effort, and in my contact with average voters of Oregon City, people get very excited when I approach them personally and start talking with them about the issues,' he said. Neeley said that voters wouldn't have to wait until the next election cycle if the city went with polls, which would also be cheaper than the balloting process.
'If we have a proposal coming before us, we could hire a credible polling agency, and we would have gone in that direction if The Rivers had been on the table longer,' Neeley said.