The Oregon Court of Appeals has unanimously decided that the disincorporation of the city of Damascus three years ago violated state law, which at least raises an awkward question, "Is Damascus still a city?"
The court made its ruling Wednesday morning, May 1. According to the decision, the outcome of the May 2016 disincorporation vote was never valid.
The vote occurred during a primary election when voter turnout is always somewhat reduced. As a result, the measure passed, but only with a simple majority. But, according to court documents, that simple majority was never enough to authorize disincorporation.
According to state law, a vote to disincorporate requires a majority of all registered voters within the city limits show up to the polls. The court ruled the measure should have been nullified because voter turnout was less than half of registered voters.
James De Young, a former (perhaps current) city councilor, challenged the 2016 election results in trial court. While the ruling went against him, he continued his fight in the Court of Appeals.
"I feel greatly elated; this has been going on for three years," De Young said. "Law has finally prevailed, and Damascus is a city once again."
Not everyone in the community agrees with De Young.
"I think they have issued a ruling that won't go anywhere," said Chris Hawes, a Damascus resident and former campaign manager for the disincorporation group. "People are celebrating prematurely."
As a city, Damascus went through turmoil during its existence as a municipality after being formed in 2004. The town went through seven city managers in eight years, and first put forward a vote to disincorporate the city and recall the mayor in 2013.
One of the problems the fledgling city faced was the ordinances to provide zoning for residents' property. Community members were unable to develop, and unable to remove their property from the city limits.
The second attempt to disincorporate was an overwhelming success, with 65.75% of votes cast in support of dissolving the city. Two months later, the city ceased to exist. However, with the appellate ruling, that decision now appears to have only put the city on hiatus.
"The vote fell far short of what the law required," De Young said. "Never before in the history of the state has this happened."
The ruling by the court creates a predicament for Damascus. De Young said members of the community have been anticipating this decision, and a plan is in place to help smooth the process of reforming a city.
His plan is for the former six councilors and mayor to reconvene in the near future. If a member of the city leadership is no longer able — or willing — to serve, the Damascus city charter would have the remaining members appoint someone to fill the vacancy.
Once city leadership has been nailed down, they will have to take on a variety of tasks. A city manager and city attorney will have to be hired, the status of properties annexed out of Damascus and into Happy Valley since July 2016 will be re-evaluated, and documents and other vital assets must be received from Clackamas County, which took over governance in place of a city government.
"Many people saw Damascus as unworkable," De Young said. "We can change that. We have a promise of a bright future if we work together."
Those ideas are a sticking point for Hawes, who said bringing back the former councilors is impossible because their terms expired in 2018. That would mean an entity like Clackamas County would have to find councilors and appoint other positions within the city.
"I don't think this is going to get very far — the city is gone and there is no way to bring it back," Hawes said. "I hope wiser heads prevail and realize people just want to be left alone."
Hawes said that another complicating factor for Damascus coming back is that appeals of the latest ruling will likely send the fate of the city back to court.
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