Doubts on Damascus
Diana Helm was on a vacation with friends in California's wine country last month when her cellphone started blowing up with messages.
Her friends were concerned something horrible had happened — and the former mayor of Damascus said, in a way, that was true. After three years of "peace and quiet," a court ruling had thrown things back into chaos.
"Now I have people stopping me in Safeway asking, 'What is going on in Damascus?'" Helm said.
The Oregon Court of Appeals unanimously decided the disincorporation of Damascus had violated state law, which has led some in the community to claim the city had been reborn. The May 1 ruling appeared to roll back the clock on the 2016 disincorporation.
Some of the former councilors began holding special meetings to try and kickstart a revival and prove the viability of their city. Led by James De Young, who was appointed mayor, the council is working to shore up the issues that plagued Damascus in the past.
"What we experienced these last three years is like a man being falsely sent to prison," De Young said. "All of our money went away, our property went away, and so forth."
But Helm understands better than most why the city turned to disincorporation, as the infighting and vitriol had been choking the small municipality for years.
"We were being a city for no reason except to fight and have people sit at a city hall," Helm said.
Damascus made the unusual decision to allow the entire voting body to have a say in the final approval of a comprehensive plan, and as a result one could never be passed.
The inability to pass a comprehensive plan was also a huge issue for the community. Every city in Oregon is required to have such a plan. No matter what city officials did, they couldn't get Damascus to pass a plan. One ballot even featured three different choices, all of which failed.
Damascus had instituted a spending limitation with a clause that all they could spend annually was last year's amount plus 3%. There was no allowance for inflation or population growth. As a result, the municipality went through seven city managers in eight years.
"Whatever chance Damascus had in the beginning, it put itself into an impossible place," said Chris Hawes, who chaired the Citizens Committee for Disincorporation.
Now many in Damascus are going through deja vu.
"People are livid right now," said Jamie Karn.
The Damascus City Council is moving forward. They appointed new members to fill vacancies, brought on Richard Carson as a part-time volunteer city manager, formed a budget committee and have been taking on difficult topics to get the city back on its feet.
If Damascus is truly a city once again, the council must find a new meeting space — the former city building is now a popular liquor store. Also: the status of properties annexed out of Damascus and into Happy Valley will be re-evaluated; documents and other vital assets have to be recovered from the county; and a budget must be created.
"(De Young) led a Herculean effort for a monumental court win for this city," said Bill Wehr, Damascus council president.
But others disagree with Wehr's glowing praise, and say things are moving far too quickly.
"I think the 'council' is a farce, a charade," Hawes said. "These are things you'd expect out of the sixth grade committee for ice cream in the lunchroom."
Picking and choosing
It was the second vote for disincorporation that was an overwhelming success, with 65.75% of votes in support of ending the city. Two months later, it ceased to exist. However, with the appellate court ruling, that decision may have only put things on hiatus.
The vote for disincorporation required 50% plus one of all registered voters. Hawes described the system as absurd.
"To incorporate a city of 5,000 people, you could have two out of three people vote and pass it," he said. "But the next day if you wanted to disincorporate you would need 2,501 people to vote in favor."
During elections one of the most difficult aspects is getting people to vote in the first place, which meant that those who wanted to disincorporate Damascus had to fight an uphill battle.
"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 Appellate Court pointed to several things that called the disincorporation into question. That was enough for De Young and others to move forward with their plans for the city. But people like Helm have called for patience.
"We should be waiting to hear from the courts," Helm said. "Nothing in the Appellate Court's opinion reinstated the city. It just kicked it back to the Circuit Court."
If the clock really is being rolled back on Damascus to 2016, then Helm said she should reclaim her position as mayor. De Young and others said that isn't the case because she annexed her property into Happy Valley.
"You can't pick and choose what gets rolled back," Helm said. "If we are going back to Damascus being a city, then I guess I never left for Happy Valley."
Though she would rather not be in this position, Helm said if push came to shove she would be willing to step up as mayor to support another push for disincorporation.
"(The Council) is jumping the gun — no one has any authority in Damascus," she said.
For the most part, Clackamas County, the Metro regional government and the state Legislature have been content to stay out fracas. But the Board of Clackamas County Commissioners raised concerns about the situation in a letter to 21 state legislators last month.
"Our relationships with Clackamas County and Happy Valley is a sizeable issue for this council and all of Damascus," De Young said.
House Bill 4029 allowed citizens on the border of Damascus to de-annex out of the city in 2014, and promptly a majority of property owners on the westside chose to leave for Happy Valley.
For longtime Damascus resident Jim Syring, the decision wasn't for lack of trying to make the city work. He was on the budget committee and used to host late night brainstorming sessions to solve the big issues facing Damascus. But as things continued to go downhill, he decided to join the 120 property owners who left.
"A city was born in 2003, but it didn't work," he said.
But the city of Damascus didn't like seeing citizens leave. So after a closed-door executive session, the City Council filed a lawsuit against its own people.
"We were imprisoned in Damascus, and once we were sued we pledged never to be a part of Damascus again," Syring said.
Jerry Schofield, a resident in the Damascus area for 30 years, was the third person to annex into Happy Valley and another target of the lawsuit.
"I had to hire an attorney to fight my tax dollars," he said.
A retired firefighter, Syring has lived on Foster Road for 57 years. After the failed attempt to de-annex out of the city, Syring jumped on board the disincorporation movement. Once the effort was successful, he and many of his neighbors returned to Happy Valley and enjoyed "three years of peace and harmony."
"Happy Valley has done an amazing job and is getting things done that Damascus couldn't," Syring said.
Then the Appellate Court decision was announced, and Syring and Schofield said neighbors are concerned.
"My thought is De Young is delusional," Schofield said. "The people have spoken twice, and the guys ought to listen to us."
Both are prepared to fight back against the city of Damascus if they are forced to leave Happy Valley. There is talk of a class-action lawsuit to counter what is happening.
"Mr. De Young is using the legal system to his advantage, so we will as well, to prevent us being forced back into a city," Syring said. "We will do whatever we can to evacuate our neighbors out of Damascus."
News out of Salem further complicates the future of Damascus.
Last week a serious pushback against the city began in an Oregon Senate committee that prompted city defenders to call it a "death sentence."
An amendment to Senate Bill 226 would counter the Oregon Court of Appeals decision. The amendment is led by Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Happy Valley.
"Every time they've tried to do this the courts have found it to be illegal," City Manager Richard Carson said.
Things will have to move quickly. The deadline to pass the changes to SB 226 and get it on Gov. Kate Brown's desk is Saturday, June 15. If that occurs, Damascus will dissolve and proponents of the city will gear up for another long courtroom battle.
"We have not seen this kind of intentional and systematic destruction of a city in Oregon since the halcyon days of the Rajneesh," wrote Carson in a letter to the Oregon Senate and House of Representatives.
The city leadership of Damascus has lofty plans for the municipality. There has been talk of enacting a small property tax rate, perhaps as low as .01% or only $30 in tax for a $300,000 home.
They want to reduce the city footprint, create better branding for the city, regulate the marijuana industry and fix traffic flow; a longtime headache for residents.
"I am very optimistic that with a fresh start we can have this city go through a rebirth and be an example for others," De Young said. "I envision a city people will want to annex into."
But others said, if worse comes to worst, they will return to the disincorporation tactic.
"We were given bad information when we incorporated as a city," Helm said. "If we had known we wouldn't have done it in the first place."
The people of Damascus incorporated as a way to protect their community from being overtaken by development. There was a real fear that the small town would soon resemble Happy Valley or Gresham, losing the village charm that many were drawn to in the first place.
This has been one of De Young's main speaking points during meetings. He wants to have the city keep that pioneering feel. But his opponents describe those kind of mantras as "fear mongering."
"I just can't believe De Young is still trying to make it a city," Schofield said. "I think he just wants to be mayor. I'd rather vote for my 14-year-old granddaughter before him."
The future of Damascus is murky, but for Helm, the best option would be to let things be.
"We can go back to being a nice little community," she said.
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