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Urban-renewal petitioners successfully sue Oregon City for attempting to block ballot measure

Due to “the strong policy preference in Oregon in favor of the initiative process,” Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Michael C. Wetzel ruled on Monday that Oregon City didn’t have the power to revoke a petition to kill the city’s urban-renewal program.

Oregon City officials had claimed on Jan. 12 that they made a mistake in approving an anti-urban-renewal petition on May 4, 2015; rather than cease collecting signatures, the petitioners sued on Jan. 19 to keep their right to put a measure on the November ballot that, if approved, would limit the city’s urban-renewal agency’s functions to paying off its current debt and dissolving itself.

In making the ruling on May 2, Wetzel said that Oregon law intentionally prohibits “the potential waste of time and energy by participants in the initiative process were an election official able to rescind his or her determination.”

Although it’s rare that that a citizen successfully fights city hall, co-chief petitioner John Williams said he knew he had a good case.

“It was so obvious they were wrong that it was clear justice would prevail,” Williams said.

Williams plans to submit the signatures in June so that the measure will appear on the November ballot. He will petition the court to recover more than $8,000 for his attorney Jesse Buss’ expenses.

With at least four lawyers working on the case, the city’s own attorneys have doubtless charged taxpayers much more than that, and this newspaper will be submitting a public-records request to find out how much the city spent unsuccessfully trying to prevent the petition from getting on the ballot.

Oregon City’s attorneys argued that “11th hour” revocations of measures have happened in other cases in the state. The city recorder “was trying to do the right thing when she found out about the Albany case” in order for voters “not to have the rug pulled out from under them,” Oregon City attorney Eryn Hoerster said. If the petition were deemed unconstitutional, it wouldn’t have been until after a vote that citizens would realize that they voted on a useless petition.

“In our system, that happens all the time,” Wetzel said.

Although cities are granted “broad powers” are by the Oregon Constitution, that doesn’t mean than Oregon City can unilaterally throw out a petition more than six months after the city approved it. Both sides seemed to agree that under state law, Oregon City could set up an official timeframe for reviewing petitions anywhere between zero and 60 days, but it never bothered to do so.

“Oregon City has never gotten around to opting out of those default regulations,” Hoerster said.

Wetzel, declining to rule on the timeframe issue, agreed that there were other ways for the city to have reviewed the petition for legality, but he disagreed with the city’s view that petitioners could always seek expedited judicial review if they felt slighted by a city changing its mind on approving a petition.

“There are all these other avenues that someone who has constitutional concerns about the measure can pursue,” Wetzel said.