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Election might spell Damascus' final fight

Pro-disincorporation candidates sweep; land-use plan blocked

You might call it the “only in Damascus” election.

Only in Damascus could a mayor be elected on a platform of dismantling the city. Only in Damascus could a state-required land-use plan six years past due fail again and by an overwhelming margin.

Only in Damascus could citizens feel such jubilant relief at the results of a small, local election.

“We won! We won! This time we won!” That was Damascus’ new mayor Diana Helm after her 64 percent initial result was announced at the “Liberation of Damascus” party hosted by activist Jim Syring.

The crowd celebrated Helm’s 63 percent victory over current Councilor Bill Wehr, as well as those of her coalition of councilors. David Hadley won 64.1 percent of the vote over Doug Walker and Nancy Robbins Carpenter won 63.3 percent over Pat Higgins.

The comprehensive land-use plan, the product of years of political wrangling, failed more than 2-to-1 against.

Syring, who hosted the election night party, is the leader of Citizens for Secession from Damascus, a group of property owners being sued by the city for their state-sanctioned attempts to transfer into Happy Valley.

“I wouldn’t mind being part of Happy Valley. It’s a great city,” said Helm, who says she will disincorporate the city if that’s what its citizens want or allow adjoining cities to annex it piece by piece. She doesn’t have high hopes that a comprehensive land-use plan will ever pass in Damascus. One is on the ballot in March, but requires a super-majority of voters to turn out.

“They’ve been frightened for so long (of development), that how do you unfrighten them?”

Mayor Steve Spinnett said he was disappointed at the results but didn’t take it personally.

“I think that the community out here has been through so much in the last 10 years, and I think they’re just saying no,” Spinnett said. “I think they’re done with the city, done with the comp plan. They’re just done.

“I kinda knew that,” he added, “but as a mayor, you want to make it all work and it didn’t.”

Spinnett added that he holds no ill will toward his opposition and will support the “citizens’ plan” comprehensive plan in March.

“I truly hope that they’ll have success in their endeavors,” he said. Spinnett said his perspective has shifted from an activist, who tears down, to a legislator, who builds up.

“I want to help be a builder,” he said. “If that’s towards people with a different perspective, so be it.”

What does it mean for the region?

Metro Councilor Shirley Craddick, whose district includes Damascus, says the vote reflects how difficult it is to start a new city in an area primed for growth. “Creating the governance, infrastructure and market needed to move forward can be done, but the City Council needs to work together and the community needs to be engaged in a positive way,” Craddick said in an email.

She added that disincorporation of the fledgling city would have repercussions throughout the Portland region.

“Damascus residents would have fewer options about the future,” Craddick wrote. “Other cities in the Portland metro region would need to accommodate the people who otherwise might choose to live in Damascus. Fortunately, there are cities in the Portland metro region that are hungry to grow their communities in ways that maintain our great quality of life.”