Most Americans know June 6, 1944, D-Day, was an important date in history: The Allied invasion led to the end of World War II in Europe, the restoration of democracy in many countries, and a 72-year movement for democracy and freedom in the rest of the world.
Oregonians should also know about another important historical date in the same month: June 4, 1906. It's the day when Oregon voters expanded democracy in our state by passing two important amendments to the Oregon State Constitution.
The first of these two amendments granted initiative and referendum powers to the people. Initiative petitioning certainly changed the interplay between citizens and their governments and I'd claim was good for democracy in our state.
The second one — called home rule — granted Oregon cities the power to adopt home-rule charters by vote of the people. Home rule shielded local city governments from much of the State Legislature's control. It said, in brief, that only local voters have the power to alter, amend or repeal a city charter. We hear a lot about initiatives and referendum, but the second change may be more important for our freedom and democracy.
Article XI (2) of the Oregon Constitution says: "...The legislative assembly shall not enact, amend or repeal any charter or act of incorporation for any municipality, city or town. The legal voters of every city and town are hereby granted power to enact and amend their municipal charter, subject to the constitution and criminal laws of the state of Oregon." Herein lies the real power of a city to do all things necessary for the comfort and safety of its citizens. Home rule is a critical right that you and I must be willing to defend for our current democracy.
Unfortunately, over the last 111 years, Oregon state legislative bodies have devised laws and regulations that challenge the historical understanding of the bold constitutional change made by our state's citizens back in 1906. Called "pre-emption," some of those legislative efforts were in vain, sometimes they were successful, and often the courts were petitioned to rule on the meaning of an issue involving constitutional wording, or the intention of the voters.
Are we in Oregon City under threat of pre-emption? Yes, we are. Are our home-rule rights under attack? Yes, they are.
As we came into the 21st century, the Oregon City Charter was amended by a vote of the citizens to require any annexation of land to the city be voted on. Now the Oregon Legislature enacted a bill that says anyone who wishes to annex to a city, regardless of any city charter or other restriction to the contrary, must be annexed. No vote is necessary.
It seems to me such legislative action violates our home-rule rights. How did the Oregon City Commission respond? A majority of the Oregon City Commission fell in line with this "pre-emption" and violated our City Charter, allowing several new annexation applications to move forward without a vote of the citizens. They chose not to defend our democratic home-rule rights derived from the Oregon State Constitution.
The city of Corvallis took the state to court on the matter, but lost because the wording in their city charter requiring a vote on annexations was ruled by a judge to give the state priority. That decision may be appealed.
Here's another example of twisted logic and abuse of our home-rule rights. Last November, Oregon City voters approved a change to the City Charter to prohibit the use of a taxing scheme called "tax increment financing." The city urban-renewal agency and city commission sued in court to have the voter-passed Measure 3-514 declared "unconstitutional."
Their argument? They say Oregon Revised Statue 457 covering urban-renewal districts, a creation of the Oregon Legislature, prohibits challenging, through any action like a public vote, whatever the city urban-renewal agency wants to do! The city not only again failed to defend home-rule rights, it wants the courts to nullify them!
The city attorney even told the court he did not believe anybody could alter an urban-renewal plan, not a vote of the people, not even the Oregon City Commission.
The arguments have been heard on the case and we are waiting for a ruling on the matter from the court. Whatever the outcome of the case, I urge you to learn more about home rule and how important it is to democracy in our city. For a good explanation and history of home rule, go to the League of Oregon Cities webwite and read their 2006 anniversary publication on home rule.
And let's remember June 4, 1906, as our Democracy Day.
Oregon City resident John Williams was co-chief petitioner of Measure 3-514 to disband the city's urban-renewal program.