Suit claims de-annexation bill is unconstitutional

The city of Damascus has filed suit against people who want to leave the city — as well as the governor, Portland Metro and Clackamas County and a few others.

The decision to file a lawsuit was not voted on in open session by the City Council, but followed discussion in executive, or closed, session, said city attorney Tim Ramis. Councilor Dan Tomlinson agreed that the decision was made in private session, but refused to comment further, referring questions to the city.

Councilor Jim De Young said the council was “unanimous” in its support for filing the lawsuit, but said no vote was taken during an open meeting.

For the city to take legal action without approval of the City Council in open session appears have violated Oregon open meetings law, said attorney Jack Orchard, who represents member organizations of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, including The Outlook.

“If what they did is have an executive session and the outcome was a decision for the city, I believe they violated open meetings law,” Orchard said.

But Ramis said there was no violation of the law.

“They (the City Council) had a privileged conversation with their lawyer and directed action. They accepted our advice,” he said.

The suit, filed April 23 in Marion County, contends that a recently enacted state law is unconstitutional in that it allows citizens to de-annex their property from Damascus and join another municipality.

The bill, House Bill 4029, was in direct response to the fact that Damascus has failed to produce a comprehensive development plan since it was founded in 2004.

At least a dozen people have filed paperwork to de-annex, and many are named in the suit. They include residents Hank and Valerie Brown, Jeffry and Ardith Elane Olson, GDI New Horizons, Lowell Patton, Oregon Lumber Export Company, Deborah Francis, John and Patricia Hartsock and “defendants John and Jane Doe” to indicate anyone else, up to 100 people, who apply to de-annex.

The lawsuit states that the bill was intended to apply only to Damascus, even though the town is not named in the bill, and that Clackamas County stands to profit “by virtue of the addition of real property within its boundaries...including property taxes.”

The suit claims that HB 4029 is unconstitutional because it “delegated nonexistent legislative authority” by authorizing a change in Damascus’ boundaries and “deprives Damascus of its power to alter its own boundaries by its own procedures.”

The suit seeks to have HB 4029 declared unconstitutional, prevent enforcement of the bill, to reimburse the city for its costs and “other just and equitable relief deemed by the court.”

Hank Brown, the first person to file for de-annexation, said he was once excited about the town.

“We chose to go with Damascus because we felt someday it would be a great city,” he said. “But through infighting and a lack of any progress for a long period of time, we finally got to that point.”

Brown said he attended a Damascus budget meeting last week and learned the city planned to cut a position on the police force while keeping more than $180,000 in reserves for legal fees.

“So we’re going to have a less safe city but with more money to sue our citizens,” he said. “This is like the moves of very desperate people, and I’m going to be very verbal, in their face at meetings.”

Brown’s hearing before the City Council on his request for de-annexation will be Thursday, May 1. He said CBS News interviewed him last week and aired a story on the Damascus saga this past weekend. He said he expects TV cameras to be at the May 1 hearing as well.

Jim Syring of Damascus, leader of the newly formed Citizens for De-Annexation From Damascus, said the city’s action is “crazy, ludicrous” and that he hopes a judge throws it out as a frivolous lawsuit.

“This is nothing more than an attempt to delay people from exercising their legal right to take advantage of this law,” he said. “The council has gone crazy, is wasting their money, and people are more upset than I’ve ever seen before.”

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