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Initiative would change charter

Phil Yates wants all bond sales to be approved by city voters

A new petition drive for an amendment to Oregon City's charter could drastically alter the way urban renewal works in the city.

Sponsor Phil Yates says it will give citizens greater input, while the city leaders believe it could scare developers away.

The amendment would require that all bonds sold by the city or any entity controlled by the city - such as the Urban Renewal Agency - would be put up for a vote. Yates and the Oregon City Area Sustainability Political Action Committee (ORCAS PAC), have been sparring with the city since it passed a new $130 million debt ceiling limit for urban renewal bonds last year. A petition drive by former Mayor John Williams failed to gain enough votes last fall, and a lawsuit Yates filed against the city for selling urban renewal bonds without voter approval was dismissed in January.

There is no time limit for Yates to acquire the 2,400 signatures he needs to put the initiative on the ballot. City leaders say the effort would be an albatross for the city during negotiations with developers.

'You'd be hard-pressed to find developers who are willing to deal with a city with that much uncertainty,' City Manager Larry Patterson said. Patterson said requiring a vote on each urban renewal project would provide opponents a chance to create confusion. He pointed to projects like the Highway 213 and Beavercreek Road interchange, which he said may not have passed a voter referendum, even though it has eased traffic woes in the area.

'In the public forum it's very easy to provide confusion, and when people are confused they're going to vote no on an issue,' Patterson said. 'You don't have to get to the facts as much as attack the credibility of the folks sitting in office.'

Yates maintains that the charter is simply about making urban renewal projects accountable to voters, and ensuring that future city commissions aren't saddled with long-term debt.

'The proposed Charter Amendment does nothing more than reintroduce a basic rule: our City government should not borrow money without the consent of the voters,' Yates wrote in a prepared statement. He said the city should put development plans before voters before working out a deal with a specific developer, rather than working out 'sweet heart' deals ahead of time.

Mayor Alice Norris said she supports increased citizen input in the urban renewal process, but categorized the petition drive as 'one person's way of stopping the economic revitalization of the community.'

'I fear for the future of economic development in the community,' she said.

Norris noted that projects on the city's north end, such as the mixed-use development The Rivers, are critical for the future economic viability of Oregon City. The project is slated for the former Rossman landfill site near the junction of Interstate 205 and Highway 213, and is scheduled to receive urban renewal funds.

The current city charter requires voter approval on all general revenue bonds, but does not extend to urban renewal bonds. Even if Yates' charter amendment passes, there could be legal questions with statewide implications regarding voters' rights to control urban renewal agency funds.

'The reality is, urban renewal is governed by state charter. By limiting the city charter, can you limit urban renewal; that's a question that has to be answered,' Patterson said.