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James Nicita, former city commissioner, writes opinion article against Measure 3-583

Measure 3-583, one of the Oregon City charter amendments on the May ballot, asks voters to change the manner by which citizens elect their city commissioners.COURTESY PHOTO: JIM NICITA - On Aug. 4, 1978, the Oregon City Enterprise-Courier, wrote against the old 'top-two' system for selecting city commissioners.

Currently, commissioners run for specific "positions." Measure 3-583 would instead create a "top-two" system whereby all the candidates would run against each other, and the top two vote-getters would be elected to the city commission.

There are several good reasons why Oregon City voters should vote "no" on Measure 3-583.

It is questionable why this measure is even on the ballot: It would revert Oregon City back to the very same "top-two" system it had immediately prior to the current system.

In 1978, voters soundly rejected that old system in favor of the current system.

On Aug. 4, 1978, the Oregon City Enterprise-Courier, which that year had won first-place awards from the Oregon Newspaper Publishing Association for best editorial writing and best local column, provided the following arguments against the old "top-two" system and for the new system:

"The present system, under which candidates run in a wide-open field and the top vote-getters win the open seats, amounts to little more than a popularity contest.

"Since the candidates have no single incumbent's record to challenge and the candidates are not under any clear pressure to defend their conduct in office, the present system does not promote a solid discussion of issues.

"A charter change to require candidates to seek a specific position will promote a broader understanding of what city commissioners are supposed to do, and how well the incumbents have performed and what challengers propose to do in the office.

"It will promote a broader knowledge of government because candidates will have to rely on more than popularity and name familiarity to get into office.

"If a city commissioner wants to stay in office, he or she will have to answer to the voters for the way she or he has carried out the duties of that office. The commissioner will have to cite accomplishments and defend actions.

"The challengers will be able to criticize incumbents in office, but they will also be under an obligation to tell voters how they would do it differently."

Voters apparently agreed with the Enterprise-Courier. That November, they voted by a nearly 3-to-1 margin, 2,675 to 996, to replace the old system with the new system, beginning with the 1980 election.

On the one hand, the new system has served Oregon City well. Several recent elections have been decided after vivid debates between candidates on specific issues: police staffing, the proposed Rivers Mall, and urban renewal are a few that come to mind.

On the other hand, the problems identified in the Enterprise-Courier editorial would only be worse today if voters were to choose to revert back to the old system. For example, in 1980, Oregon City's population was 14,673. In 2020, it was 37,572; in other words, it has grown by over two-and-a-half times. If city commission elections were mere "popularity contests" in 1978, they would be even more so today.

Oregon City cannot afford to have city elections that are not laser-focused on the many serious issues of the day.

Vote "no" on Measure 3-583.

James Nicita is a former Oregon City commissioner.

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