It's no secret that the Lake Oswego City Council is shaking in its collective shoes at the prospect of a charter amendment that would curtail its freedom to spend without public oversight.
The city council detests Measure No. 3-269 because:
n Measure No. 3-269 exempts purchases that are made to address direct health or safety issues and purchases made through voter-approved urban renewal plans but would require the city to allow citizen participation in big ticket, non-essential real estate purchase decisions exceeding $2 million.
n It places conditions on heretofore 'discretionary' spending. No provisions in the city charter prevented the council from opening a $25 million line of credit and obligating us to $996,000 a year for interest alone and a further $300,000 a year for operating costs for Safeco without our consent. That needs to change. The council continues to postpone asking for your consent. The bond measure, first promised in 2006, has now been postponed to 2010 at the earliest. The longer the council can postpone the bond measure, the longer it can continue to own Safeco without voter approval, and spend down our tax reserves.
n In November, we will be asked to retain ownership of Safeco without being told how it will be used, what it will cost or how it will be paid for. The council would prefer to make no commitment to a use for the site, allowing it maximum flexibility. Unlike the city's November 'advisory' vote, Measure No. 3-269's retroactive feature will trigger a binding vote on Safeco at the next election in March 2008. This effectively creates a deadline by which the council must identify and declare a use for the property and disclose a funding source.
n Had it been in place two years ago, Measure No. 3-269 would have allowed a vote on Safeco in the beginning, avoiding this fiasco. Lake Oswego's city charter is remarkable for its lack of spending controls. It allows the city council very wide latitude, unlike some surrounding cities whose citizens exert more influence on matters concerning their communities.
In West Linn, for example, before city utility rates can increase more than 5 percent per year voters must approve. Many cities require voter approval for urban renewal districts; Tigard voters just approved an urban renewal district in 2006 after their city council convinced voters it was worthwhile. Our city council fears facing voters in order to spend over $2 million on non-essential property, meanwhile Beaverton's voluntary indebtedness cannot exceed $25,000, 'except by consent of a majority of the voters at an election.'
When neighboring cities invite citizen input on important 'pocketbook' issues, their communities are better for it. Ask your friends who live in these cities if voting on important city issues 'hamstrings' their city or 'impedes economic development.' The truth is that voting requirements foster more openness and transparency in city government.
Naturally the council would like to preserve its freedom to spend taxpayer money without the inconvenience of public oversight. If the council consistently exercised good judgment and refrained from spending indiscriminately, it might not be necessary to impose checks and balances. But the events of the past two years have proved troubling.
Lake Oswego faces hundreds of millions of dollars of new debts in coming years just to maintain our core services. Moving forward, we deserve better checks and balances. Unfortunately, our city council fears your participation in the processes that shape our community, instructing you instead to 'just trust them.' Don't fall for the scare tactics. In truth, transparency and public oversight lend strength to government and are no threat to our community. It is unilateralism you should fear.
Faryl Ammon is a resident of Lake Oswego.