Damascus rebirth faces uphill battle
Thousands of emails unearthed through a public records request last month appear to highlight a concerted effort by various governmental bodies to counter the successful reformation of the city of Damascus.
The emails were submitted to the Oregon Supreme Court — the latest legal body to weigh in on the fluctuating municipality — by city of Damascus defenders. They include internal messages sent between the legal teams for Clackamas County, Metro Regional Government, Happy Valley and several Oregon Legislators.
The emails refer to a fear that a bill passed in 2019, which effectively reaffirmed the vote to disincorporate the city, may have been unconstitutional, and has bolstered hopes of those who want to see Damascus reborn for the second time.
"In light of the emails, there was a strong agreement to keep Damascus from ever being revived," said James De Young, a Damascus resident who has been fighting legally on behalf of the city for years. "The way Damascus has been treated has been terribly wrong."
Damascus disincorporated in 2016 after a bumpy stretch as a municipality that led to years of infighting and frustration. Initially, the Oregon Circuit Court backed the dissolution of the city — but last year things were thrown into confusion as the Oregon Court of Appeals sided with De Young. It ruled the vote to disincorporate was illegal.
For De Young and others, it meant the city had reverted back to its pre-disincorporation state. The former councilors began meeting, named De Young mayor, and attempted to operate as a municipality.
Others seemed to ignore the appellate ruling, instead seeking ways to undermine the revival of the on-again, off-again city. The emails from the public records request show a strong push from Happy Valley and Clackamas County to create a solution.
The legislative fix became Senate Bill 226, which was voted through last year and effectively ignored the Appellate Court decision, ratifying the 2016 vote as legal. That bill is now in the crosshairs for De Young's legal challenge in the Supreme Court.
"I am pretty confident about the Supreme Court decision," De Young said. "The same legal issues that led to the Appellate ruling appear to still be in place."
Both Clackamas County and Happy Valley were involved in the aftermath of the Damascus disincorporation.
When the city dissolved, the general fund of $8.4 million was turned over to Clackamas County for a variety of purposes. About $2 million was used to absorb former Damascus employees to the county payroll and continuation of law enforcement services; approximately $2.9 million was dedicated to road maintenance and other services; and about $3.4 million was returned to eligible residents.
The filing in support of Damascus stated that money was spent and distributed despite the pending appeal that later decided in favor of Damascus' existence. It states the county acted "recklessly in not awaiting final appellate judgement before disbursing the funds."
Meanwhile, about 1,200 acres of former Damascus land was annexed into Happy Valley.
De Young said the key word is reconciliation if the Supreme Court ruling brings the city back. He wants to work with both the county and Happy Valley to come up with solutions that avoid turmoil and friction.
He said the city will not look to bring back the properties that went to Happy Valley, and that many Damascus city councilors aren't pushing to get back the general funds forfeited during disincorporation. Instead, they want to form an agreement to cease any further annexation and have Clackamas County collect taxes on behalf of Damascus — something they refused to do last year after the Appellate Court appeared to reform the city.
"We have the potential to be a unique city in Oregon," De Young said.
For De Young, the importance of these continued legal battles is to allow Damascus to shape its own future. Many in the community have spoken about a desire to blend a rural feel with sensible urban development.
That dream hinges on the decision by the Supreme Court, which has no set timeline.
"What is happening with Damascus is setting the legal precedent for the entire state," De Young said. "Damascus is trying to overcome many obstacles that have greatly harmed the city."
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