Damascus: Separating fact from fiction
A recent opinion piece in The Outlook, while sympathetic to the perils facing Damascus, got many details wrong regarding the plight of the city.
As a former city councilor and now duly appointed mayor, let me try to set the record straight. (See Editor's Note at the conclusion of this commentary.)
Since incorporation in 2004 the city of Damascus has been the focus of forces that have sought to cripple it or kill it. The most hurtful group were those wanting to develop adjacent to Happy Valley.
They put a disincorporation vote on the ballot (2013). But the vote fell short by almost 500 votes of the law requiring a majority of registered voters.
They appealed to the Appellate Court to overturn the vote and this appeal failed. Then legislators crafted a law to allow individuals to de-annex at will from the city and thereby redraw the boundaries of the city. But the Appellate Court declared HB 4029 to be unconstitutional (2014).
Then this group got three new laws from the Legislature: HB 3084, 3085 and 3086. These laws forced Damascus on May 17, 2016, to vote again on disincorporation (Measure 93), but lowered again the required majority.
A simple majority of 2,654 voted "yes," but the number fell short by more than 600 votes of the majority of the 6,580 registered voters. Almost 4,000 voters either voted "no" or did not vote. The county and state declared that the city was disincorporated. When the council failed to act, I (as a member of the City Council) filed a legal challenge in the courts, citing that the vote violated the city's Charter, statutory law and the Oregon Constitution.
After three years, on May 1, 2019, the Appellate Court ruled in favor of my challenge "as a matter of law" and nullified the vote of 2016.
Thus, the city was never disincorporated. The council never surrendered the city's charter, contrary to misinformation from Metro, the state and the county.
But during the hiatus of three years, the county by HB 3085-3086 took from Damascus all its money (over $8 million), all its property and other assets, and all its records, and has refused to return them.
Since 2016 Happy Valley sought to annex into its jurisdiction about 1,400 A. out of Damascus (estimated value over $250 million) and has begun a new comprehensive plan to annex another 1300 A.
Starting in mid-May, the City Council began meeting, filled vacancies, appointed a new mayor, fashioned a budget of $1.7 million for fiscal year 2019-2020 (with an exceedingly small tax rate), and in October passed the necessary Comprehensive Plan of 2013 and sent it on to the Department of Land Conservation and Development (an action that previous councils failed to do).
Yet in spite of the Appellate Court decision of May 1, the state, county, Metro and Happy Valley have refused to acknowledge the Appellate Court decision, which was not appealed.
In November, the Department of Land Conservation and Development sent the plan back to Damascus insisting that the city did not exist.
Instead the county and the Legislature and their attorneys have once again created another law — SB 226 — that demanded that the Oregon Secretary of State should ratify the vote of 2016 as legal after all (in spite of the Appellate Court decision).
Thus once again the city of Damascus is back in court —this time at the State Supreme Court where it is asking the court to declare the newest law to be unconstitutional.
It seems especially weird that an agent of state government should, after three years, be able to change retroactively a vote of a city already declared illegal. It also violates Damascus' home rule charter guaranteed by the Oregon Constitution.
Note that the forces for disincorporation have sought to circumvent the laws and State Constitutionfour times (2013, 2014, 2016, 2019). Repeatedly the rights of the true majority of the people of Damascus have been disregarded by an overbearing Legislature and governor. In addition, the city has suffered tremendous losses at the hands of Clackamas County and Happy Valley.
Whatever justification there may be for disincorporation, there is no justification for politicians to violate the State Constitution, the laws of the state, and the city's own charter.
There is no justification for depriving the people of Damascus their constitutional rights and self-determination.
There is no justification for mocking the revival of Damascus and the public servants who've stepped forward to serve all 10,000 citizens of the city.
What to do? Every hopeful citizen of Damascus should rally around the city to help it survive and thrive. So claim your rightful place in Damascus, you sons of the pioneers. Step forward and dream big dreams.
James De Young, Mayor
EDITOR'S NOTE: It is a subject of discussion as to whether James De Young is a "duly appointed mayor." De Young and his associates claim the city of Damascus was never legally disincorporated, making it fully permissable for a majority of former city councilors to appoint him as mayor. However, others will claim that the city was disincorporated, and all assets had been dispersed to other government agencies and members of the public. The Outlook is not officially recognizing De Young as mayor, pending the outcome of ongoing legal proceedings.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.