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Rep. Fagan introduces bills on Damascus

One of three House bills introduced to the state legislature this week, if it passes, would place the disincorporation of Damascus on the November 2016 ballot.

Urged by residents’ group, the Citizens Committee for Disincorporation, Rep. Shemia Fagan (D-Clackamas), introduced bills 3084, 3085 and 3086 to repair perceived damage through the last 10 years of incorporation.

“It’s pretty clear that over the last decade, the process of trying to be a city has torn the community apart,” Fagan said.

Bill 3084 is a modification of HB 4029, which allows residents within a half-mile of another city to de-annex from Damascus. If passed, HB 3084 would allow any resident on the Damascus border to de-annex regardless of the half-mile provision.

The bill also adds another step into the de-annexation process by requiring a sign-off from the mayor before the hearing process can begin. The property owner would first need to get an OK from the mayor that withdrawing from the city wouldn’t, to use the language from the bill, “cause an undue hardship on continued operation of the city.”

Following the mayor’s approval, the de-annexation petition would go through the normal hearing process before the council.

However, because of a drafting error in the bill, the language does not reflect that intent, Fagan said. Language will be amended when the bill goes to a hearing.

As the bill currently reads, the mayor has sole discretion of whether or not a property can be de-annexed, which is incorrect.

“What it will say is that the mayor’s part is preliminary,” Fagan said. “Because of the filing deadline, we had to file as is.”

The next two bills are what Chris Hawes, a leader of the Citizens Committee for Disincorporation, is calling “Plan B” should an appeals court not rule in the group’s favor.

In 2013, 63.5 percent of voters chose to disincorporate the city of Damascus, but the Clackamas County Circuit Court ruled the vote invalid because it was not passed by a supermajority above 50 percent. The citizens group appealed the decision, and Hawes noted they are expected to begin oral arguments in May.

“Our first hope is that our lawsuit at the court of appeals will be ruled our way and this whole nightmare can end,” he said, “but we kind of want to make sure, having one decision against us at the Circuit Court by a judge who basically didn’t follow the law as I see it, we kind of felt we needed to have a fall back.”

Bill 3085 would put disincorpoation on the ballot in November 2016 and clarify that the vote does not need to be a supermajority to pass.

“A slow painful dissolution of the city (by de-annexation) is not in anybody’s best interest,” Fagan said. “For now, properties can get out on the border, but ultimately the question can be asked of the voters in November 2016. Based on the history, I expect it to pass.”

Fagan said she’s hoping to get the disincorporation bill “on the governor’s desk within the next couple of months.”

The third bill introduced, HB 3086, would guarantee that any surplus in the city’s budget would be returned to taxpayers should they decide to disincorporate.

“Damascus is in the rare situation of not being able to actually spend all of their tax revenue,” Fagan said. “So citizens have been paying taxes to the city, and yet because of their charter, the city isn’t able to spend the revenue.”

Todd Loggan, the city’s communications director, said this week “at this point there is approximately $4.8 million in reserve.”

That number does not include current unexpended funds in the budget.

“The truth is, my job is to represent the people of the city,” Fagan said. “I don’t represent cities.”

Hawes believes disincorporation would be righting several errors made over the last decade.

“Damascus has been a series of mistakes,” he explained. “I don’t think we can fix the charter, so it’s just been a compounding of errors, one after another, starting with Metro and continuing through the history of Damascus. It’s kind of like beating your head against a wall because it feels good when you stop.”

“We really appreciate Rep. Fagan in what she’s doing, and hope we can find support to help us figure out a way out of this mess,” Hawes added, “because it’s tearing the community apart and it’s not getting any better.”

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