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Judge says Clackamas County's light-rail ballot title needed work

Clackamas County circuit Judge Deanne L. Darling ruled this week that the ballot title on an advisory light-rail measure the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners placed on the May 21 ballot is “insufficient and unfair.”

Attorney and Oak Grove resident Keith Garza claimed that the measure, as written by the county in February, was misleading because it implies that a public vote can change contractual obligations the county signed in 2010 and 2012.

Clackamas County committed to $1.2 million in road and signal construction related to the Portland-Milwaukie light-rail line. Commissioners, by a 3-2 vote on Feb. 21, are also asking voters whether they approve of selling TriMet a couple of small parcels needed for the line and whether county officials should be “allowing TriMet to conduct operations on and maintain portions of county roads and sidewalks” used by light-rail facilities, as mandated by the agreements. A companion question concerns county obligations through the North Clackamas Parks and Recreation District.

Judge Darling on March 19 certified a description of the proposed ordinance to make clear to voters that “approval or rejection of the ordinance will not affect the county’s obligations with respect to [Clackamas County’s] previous contractual commitments.”

“The court’s ruling reaffirms that the county’s promises are binding and that Measure 3-401 does not require an authorizing vote before the county actually does what it already said it would do," Garza said. “It was critically important to me that voters know that they are being asked to cast their ballot for something that won’t have any legal effect.”

Meanwhile, TriMet has also sued Clackamas County. The regional transit agency claims that a judge needs to intervene in the county’s delays of property sales and its failure to meet of other contractual obligations with deadlines last year.

County Commission Chairman John Ludlow argued commissioners were trying to be “responsive to the public” who overwhelmingly said they want to vote on light-rail measures by approving Measure 3-401 last September. “Our responsibility now is to make sure we fulfill that commitment,” Ludlow said.

A revised summary statement on the ballot measure now reads, “This Measure seeks voter approval of an ordinance authorizing the Board to use those County resources to meet the County’s previous contractual commitments toward the Portland Milwaukie Light Rail Project.”

Clackamas County will have to reimburse Garza for $300 in legal fees, on top of the $35,000 that the county estimated it would have to spend on placing the ordinances before it knew of any costs incurred to fight ballot-title challenges.

“That money should be going toward other much needed county services,” Garza said. “The ink dried on this deal years ago. The project is nearly 40 percent complete. Now is not the time for a meaningless, and costly, political maneuver.”