Rail debate kicks into high gear
Measure 3-401 supporters call bond decision a slap in the face
To vote or not to vote: That was the question facing supporters and opponents of Clackamas Countys Measure 3-401 last week as they debated the merits of a proposal that would require county officials to get voters approval before spending money on public rail projects.
The countys deep political divide spilled over into an Aug. 23 Pamplin Media Group editorial board meeting, just hours after county commissioners approved a plan to sell about $20 million in bonds in the next few weeks to pay for the countys share of the $1.49 billion Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line.
Opponents of the rail line supporters of the countywide measure called the decision a major slap in the face.
Lake Oswego City Councilor Mary Olson was among the petitioners who decried the commissions decision to move forward on a funding agreement with TriMet.
Petitioners attorney Eric Winters wondered why anyone would oppose the vote on future rail projects if the commission already has found a way to pay for light rail through Milwaukie.
The purpose of this measure is to prevent unilateral action by the board of county commissioners, Winters said.
But the Oak Grove area has 75 percent of its traffic along McLoughlin Boulevard, and Oak Grove resident Eleanore Hunter would like to see the line extended to Oregon City within her lifetime.
She wondered why TriMet or its partners would choose to invest in Clackamas County again if any project would face electoral hurdles.
Staff has done a great job in negotiating the deal they got for Clackamas County, Hunter said. I dont know why we would need to adopt a measure that would only apply to rail. This is a small amount of the budget, but theres all this fury over being able to vote on rail.
Hunter and Lake Oswego resident Craig Prosser faced off during an afternoon gathering across the table from Measure 3-401 chief petitioners Olson, Damascus Mayor Steve Spinnett and Jim Knapp of Milwaukie.
Other proponents at the table included Winters, who wrote the measure; John Ludlow, former mayor of Wilsonville; and former state Rep. Tootie Smith, both candidates for county commission posts on the November general election ballot.
During a 90-minute give-and-take, both sides leveled criticism and bolstered their arguments on the measure.
Winters said petitioners targeted rail because they expect contentious rail projects every five years. Light rails chunk of the pie is bigger than the county budget as a whole, petitioners argue, because whats available to the commission to spend is about $100 million in general funds, and out of that, more than half goes to public safety.
It will have an enormous impact countywide in terms of density, so youre not just talking about light rail, youre also talking about all the things that come with it in terms of transit-oriented development, Winters said.
Hunter said that if voters should have a say in major infrastructure projects, then it was strange that Measure 3-401 applies only to rail projects.
The measure argument always devolves to a discussion about light rail, but thats not my reason for supporting it, Olson said. Its about the citizens right to vote on projects that are major expenditures, not any particular light-rail project.
Clackamas County elections officials have budgeted $125,000 for the Sept. 18 special election, which measure opponents see as a financial burden for the county in future votes. Measure proponents say the timing of the election was forced through legal challenges to the ballot title. They argue that the board of commissions would not have received money back from the agreement with TriMet unless this measure was on the ballot.
Olson, Spinnett and Oak Lodge Water District Commissioner Knapp were chief petitioners for the measure. Representing the Positively Clackamas political action committee in opposition to the measure were Hunter and Prosser, former city manager for Tigard.
At times, the political opponents engaged in name-calling and found themselves at loggerheads.
Winters predicted that if the commission acted after November, its makeup would change so that it would not bend over for TriMet.
We have commissioners who are not defending the interests of the county because they are tied to their decisions, Knapp added.
People are not informed enough to make those types of decisions, Positively Clackamas representatives say.
Many voters are apathetic, and these are complicated issues that involve benefits for many generations, Hunter said.
The Board of County Commissioners "knows that people are not in favor of it, Spinnett retorted. Why would the county commissioners look for a vote of the people when theyre looking to get elected, but have a double standard when it comes to allowing input on rail?
Spinnett said there has never been a discussion about reprioritizing spending, just how to find more money.
Positively Clackamas tried to steer arguments back to rail.
Clackamas County is a net exporter of employees, and we need more local businesses, and businesses are looking to locate in areas with strong transportation corridors, Prosser said. The primary ridership would be commuters, and thats when you get most of the congestion on the highways is during commuting times.
Light-rail supporters have been warning that the measure could prevent public-safety efforts on the line until a few weeks ago, spurred on by an opinion from county attorneys. But county attorneys revised their position recently, assuring commissioners Aug. 16 that they would make sure policing of rail lines would continue, regardless of the measure.
Although petitioners hailed this change in rhetoric, Positively Clackamas used this as evidence that measure proponents know the flaws in their own measure. Prosser said he was concerned that if the measure passed it would be found to be unconstitutional.
Its very broadly worded, Prosser said. There are going to be disagreements as to what is going to be rail operations and what is not.
Winters said the measure could be amended or altered by county commissioners in the future to fix any problems.
If those so-called fatal flaws exist, they can be addressed if they were real, Winters said.