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Lake Oswego citizens group seeks Safeco vote

Signature campaign could lead to vote on city land purchases

A grassroots citizen committee wants to ask Lake Oswego voters whether the city ought to sell its newly acquired West End Building, formerly owned by Safeco Insurance.

The group, which calls itself Ask Lake Oswegans, filed an initiative petition with the city elections office Friday.

Its membership consists of a core collection of locals who are active in neighborhood associations, including some who want to make infrastructure a top spending priority for the city.

If a pending signature campaign puts its initiative on the ballot for November 2007, voters will decide whether to approve city land purchases of $1 million or more.

The initiative is retroactive, dating back to April 1, 2006, just prior to the city's $20 million purchase of the Safeco building.

If approved, it would trigger an immediate vote on whether Lake Oswegans should spend the $20 million city officials paid for the Safeco building about a year ago. If voters reject the purchase, the building must be sold within 180 days.

'We want them to ask us before they act,' said John Surrett, spokesman for Ask Lake Oswegans. 'We want to reserve the right to be asked, especially on these real property transactions. We feel it is our right. We're going to be the ones footing the bill.'

Surrett said the city's emphasis on the proposed community center and other amenity projects, like luring the Portland Streetcar to a redeveloped Foothills, is 'out of hand,' and interfering with priority setting for important needs like infrastructure.

Surrett said frustration with the Safeco purchase and a proposed community center has mounted as estimates for infrastructure repairs have grown. In the last year, combined needs in the city's water and sewer systems have been projected to cost $140 million, with much of that spending needed in 2009.

'The upset in the community is just incredible and they have been in denial. The arrogance, the lack of concern - this kind of indebtedness is literally going to require a lot of people to consider whether they have to move,' he said.

Surrett, a 30-year resident of Lake Oswego, is retired from a career in public policy with PacificCorp.

He said the Ask Lake Oswegans group includes a small number of vocal citizens who were shut out of early public hearings on a proposed community center at the Safeco site because they objected to the idea.

Bob Harding, chair of the Holly Orchard Neighborhood Association, and John Kuran, a canal-area resident who has weathered sewer overflows, are the co-petitioners of the initiative.

John Turchi, a Lake Oswego city councilor, acknowledged local frustration with the purchase of the Safeco property and said he thinks people deserve a chance to vote on whether they want the building.

Turchi said, however, that an initiative that would trigger elections on all property purchases of $1 million or more would stand in the way of normal city business.

'It would really hinder the ability of the city to do the regular things that it does in maintaining infrastructure and protecting the community through open space purchases,' he said.

By the terms of the measure, Turchi said, the city would have to vote to acquire right-of-way for utility projects, to buy staging areas for construction and to spend bond money already approved for open space.

'It seems like $1 million is a lot of money but when it comes to right of way or purchasing staging areas for public works … it's really not a lot of money,' he said.

Turchi acknowledged, however, that some reaction to the Safeco purchase has been brewing in Lake Oswego for the past year.

'I think we struck a nerve in the community,' he said. 'I'm not deaf to that … I thing there is a genuine concern on the part of the public about how we went about purchasing the Safeco property.'

That process included suspending a local funding policy that that prohibits the Lake Oswego City Council from spending more than 25 percent of property tax revenues on real estate.

In doing so, the council also agreed to pay $1.2 million in annual interest on the $20 million loan. That figure was recently reduced to $996,000 a year through refinancing.

Turchi said he didn't think hamstringing the city's ability to buy land for public works projects would be a responsible response from the community.

'But I don't think they think we're being responsible,' he said.

Surrett said Ask Lake Oswegans would next stump for signatures for their initiative, using a network of neighborhood liaisons to spread the word.