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James Nicita: Valiant struggle may never receive even verbal acknowledgement from elected officials

I watched the video of Mayor Rachel Lyles Smith giving her March 9 "State of the Community" address. During her speech, the mayor hailed the recent grand opening of the new Operations Center for Oregon City's public works and parks departments, located on Fir Street behind the Fred Meyer store. She made a similar statement at the Operation Center's ribbon-cutting event, as previously reported by Pamplin Media Group:

"I am very proud that we've made this investment without going to the public for a bond or taking on debt. The investment is from utility and parks funding saved for many years through the fiscal management of city staff."

Mayor Lyles Smith properly credited city staff for their contribution to the achievement of this excellent new facility.

However, magnanimity, inclusiveness and community solidarity might have called for not only public recognition of, but also affirmative public praise for, another group that also played a key role in making the new facility possible: those Oregon City citizens who engaged in a "long twilight struggle" of nearly a decade to keep the city from constructing the complex on a site that was not only inadequate, but that would have been more expensive. Those citizens saved the city and the taxpayers money.

That struggle began in 2009, when citizens appealed from the Planning Commission to the City Commission the land-use approval to construct the complex at a site above the existing complex on Center Street. The citizens lost that appeal.

By 2010, the citizens had a majority of allies on the City Commission, which directed staff to look for a new site. However, a subsequent Commission redirected staff back to the existing Center Street site.

In 2013, the citizens attempted to protect the site via a Heritage Grove nomination. The City Commission said no.

By 2014, the citizens had unearthed evidence that the site had in the past been designated as part of Waterboard Park, and presented the evidence to the City Commission, which in response went so far as to adopt a resolution in 2015 interpreting the city charter to the effect that the site was not part of Waterboard Park.

In 2017, the citizens submitted an application to Oregon City to protect two WWII-era officers' clubs from Camp Adair via designation to the city's historic registry. The city manager said no.

The Waterboard Park and Camp Adair building controversies then led to multiple appeals to the Land Use Board of Appeals and a Clackamas County Circuit Court lawsuit against the city, as well as further appeals to the Oregon Court of Appeals and Oregon Supreme Court. With the exception of one temporary victory, the citizens did not succeed in their litigation efforts.

In other words, over the span of nearly a decade, the citizens lost nearly every battle.

But they won the war. They won the war of attrition.

Over that time period, some elected officials, one or two apologists for municipal authority (one of whom had previously been a leader of the first appeal in 2009), and even the city attorney's office, castigated the citizens as obstructionists and accused them of wasting taxpayers' money.

But the citizens' war of attrition allowed time to pass such that a much better site could come on the market: the Fir Street site. And to his infinite credit, Public Works Director John Lewis seized the opportunity to acquire the Fir Street site.

The Center Street complex had been estimated to cost $21 million. According to news reports, the Fir Street site cost $7.1 million, and the new facility building cost $12.8 million, for a total of $19.9 million. The difference is $1.1 million.PMG PHOTO: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - A crowd of approximately 100 people gathered to celebrate the completion of a new Operations Center in Oregon City.

The cost to the city of the citizens' litigation would not even remotely approach that amount. So, a strong case can be made that the citizens' war of attrition saved their fellow taxpayers and the City approximately $1 million.

And that figure does not even include more long-term, less easily-quantifiable savings. As the war dragged on, the city continued to accumulate the savings it used for the project without having to incur debt and the associated cost of the interest on that debt.

There will be future savings on operational costs as a result of the efficiencies made possible by collocating public-works and parks operational facilities. Finally, there are the savings and benefits of having the operations center located closer to the center of the population, and out of a site that is constrained and in a known landslide hazard area.

The citizens who engaged in their valiant struggle will never get a plaque erected at the new operations facility, will never win the Citizen of the Year Award, and, it now appears, will never receive even verbal acknowledgement or recognition of their achievement from elected officials or city staff.

So, I hope this letter will create a record for posterity of the recognition and credit those citizens deserve for their good faith, dedication to the public interest, tenacity and wisdom.

James Nicita is a former Oregon City commissioner.

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