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Washington County light rail petition in limbo

Judge rules against Tigard's Tim Esau in anti-transit ballot initiative wording


Four months ago, Tim Esau expected to have a ballot measure out to voters in no time at all.

Now, he’s not so sure.

Esau, a Tigard resident, has been working for months to place a county-wide ballot initiative before voters this November. The measure would call for a public vote before Washington County can spend significant dollars on a proposed high capacity transit line in the works for Tigard and Tualatin.

Esau submitted the initiative petition in December, but challenged the initiative’s ballot title after Washington County included possible costs if the initiative were passed.

It’s the job of the Washington County counsel to draft ballot titles and summaries for proposed initiatives, but Esau and Wilsonville attorney Eric Winters challenged the county’s proposed ballot title for their initiative. The county’s version stated that a vote could cost county taxpayers as much $217,000. Esau

That figure is accurate if the measure is placed on a special election ballot as is the only item, but not if it were placed on a general election or primary ballot. The cost is much less if the county is already sending out ballots, Esau argued.

However, Esau was challenged by Tigard resident David Walsh, who said the ballot needed to include potential costs so taxpayers understand what they are voting for.

Washington County Circuit Court Judge Jim Fun agreed. In an April 6 ruling, Fun ruled that the ballot title would include the $217,000 figure.

“Esau’s objections to identifying the costs of a vote associated with the initiative are not persuasive,” Fun wrote in his ruling. “The legal effect of the initiative obligates the county to hold a county-wide vote which must be mentioned in the summary … Moreover, the county-wide vote will have fiscal consequences which also must be explained in the summary. Petitioner Esau’s claim that (the description) of the costs is otherwise misleading or unfair is not persuasive.”

Esau argued that adding costs will confuse voters.

“It didn’t go the way we wanted,” Esau said on Tuesday. “We were asking for clarification.”

Esau now has two options: use Judge Fun’s approved ballot title and language — which includes the $217,000 figure — or submit a new petition.

“If we do refile, it will just be contested again,” he said.

But time is running out for him to collect the 15,270 signatures required to place the initiative on the ballot.

“It’s getting really sketchy if we want to make it by November,” he said.

Metro, TriMet and several Washington County cities have been working for years on a plan to bring either a MAX line or rapid bus system from Portland through Tigard and Tualatin. FILE PHOTO - Washington County cities have been working for years on a plan that could see either a MAX light rail line or rapid bus line come to Tigard and Tualatin. Tigard resident Tim Esau is hoping a county-wide vote will decide if residents want to build the project or not.

Known as the Southwest Corridor Plan, project leaders are still debating whether MAX or rapid bus is the right answer. Steering committee members hope to make a decision next spring about which mode to move forward with — light rail or rapid bus service. Esau said he’d like his initiative to be voted on before that decision is made.

Esau was the chief petitioner for a similar measure approved last year by Tigard voters. That vote bans the city from promoting construction of a new high-capacity transit line through town and requires a public vote before the city can construct a line.

King City and Tualatin have similar measures in place.

Esau said his opponents have criticized him for being “disingenuous,” about his intentions.

“It’s discouraging,” Esau said. “It has come up in back channels that I’m anti-moving forward, anti-rail and don’t want anything to do with the public vision for the future. But it’s not true ... They say I do this to stop progress. I would beg the Washington County Commission to put this to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote and then abide by it. I’d love that. Bring it on.”

Esau said plans for the Southwest Corridor impact all of Washington County, since taxpayer funds will help build it.

Without a vote, Esau said, residents have no way of making their voices heard about how their money is being spent.

“What other recourse do I have as a citizen?” Esau said. “This petition process is the only effective way I have to be heard. If I speak at a public meeting, I watch the drones roll their eyes and it doesn’t impact the plans at all.”

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