Clackamas County halts effort to repeal emergency declaration
UPDATED THURSDAY, MAY 6, 12:40 P.M.: The Clackamas Board of County Commissioners has decided, for now, not to end an emergency housing declaration nearly three months before its scheduled sunset. The board's decision Thursday, May 6, to stall their action on ending the declaration came after a somewhat bitter discussion over whether rescinding the emergency order would impact the county's ability to be agile in responding to safety threats to Clackamas County's unhoused populations caused by extreme weather events such as ice storms, wildfires or heat. It is set to expire on Aug. 1, 2021, but has been renewed by the board each of the last four years.
Earlier this week, leaders of faith communities and nonprofits who provide housing services in Clackamas County expressed deep concern in a letter to the board over the proposed move to cancel the declaration. They argue that rescinding the emergency declaration would cause their organizations to jump through hoops that make responding to the needs of local unhoused people much harder.
The move to rescind the declaration came at the request of County Chair Tootie Smith who told her colleagues Tuesday, May 4, that she believes the emergency order is being abused by county staff and local nonprofits who are subverting the public bidding process and zoning laws intended to provide transparency to the process. She also argues that the board is able to respond to housing emergencies by convening on a moment's notice and reimplementing the declaration whenever it is truly needed.
Smith said Thursday that while she wouldn't call out anyone by name, there have been examples of abuse of this emergency declaration. However, she did not provide any examples.
County Administrator Gary Schmidt told the board that there have been zero instances in the past year where the emergency declaration was used to "subvert" the public bidding process in efforts to provide emergency shelter because they would have had to be cleared by his office and no such actions were brought before him.
Initially, Commissioner Mark Shull made a motion to approve an addendum to the declaration that would have sunset the order immediately — 87 days before its intended expiration. The motion was seconded by Smith, but discussion continued and Commissioner Paul Savas made a counter-motion to table Shull's. That was seconded by Commissioner Martha Schrader and eventually the entire board voted unanimously to table the discussion.
Savas said that he was ready to "roll up his sleeves" — figuratively and literally, as he unbuttoned his cuffs — and get to work on the underlying issues of zoning laws and procurement that make it difficult for the county and its contractors to respond swiftly in some cases. Smith said that effort wouldn't be happening today, but did swear that she intends to bring this issue back before the board soon.
Smith criticized the group of organizations that sent the letter to the board and to Pamplin Media Group on Wednesday, May 5, as having a political agenda and carrying out a campaign of "misinformation and disinformation."
"I think there's been a lot of misunderstanding regarding the effectiveness, or in this case the non-effectiveness, of this emergency declaration. There's been a lot of fury created which I believe is wholly inaccurate," Smith said.
Commissioner Sonya Fischer maintained that it's responsible public policy to not quickly push through an effort such as this without hearing from both county staff on its utilization and effectiveness, as well as from the public to gather the community's thoughts and perceptions about how this will impact the county and its partners ability to provide services.
Sara Gross Samuelson — co-leader of Storyline Community which spearheaded the letter issued to the board Wednesday — responded to Smith's allegation that unneeded "panic" regarding the board's action was stirred. Gross Samuelson said that if the board had engaged in a work session process and allowed the public to comment, that this all could have been avoided.
"The county commission cannot continue to live in this narrative that they are good at emergency response and 'it only takes 30 minutes.' As someone who has been involved in advocating for warming shelters and setting up a smoke shelter during the wildfires.... even this housing emergency declaration is not good enough. It's not enough, period," Gross Samuelson said. "There was no conspiracy in the email campaign. Simply community organizers, nonprofits and concerned citizens asking for accountability. If Tootie doesn't believe in the citizens of Clackamas County to care about our community and respond when we have concerns, then that's disappointing."
The letter issued by a coalition of housing services organizations and faith-based groups — led by Storyline Community — said the county's emergency declaration has been a critical tool in responding quickly to a variety of crises in Clackamas County and should remain in place.
"Rescinding the housing state of emergency would be a waste of taxpayer resources; forcing our service providers and faith communities to jump through too many hoops to set up critical shelters during unpredictable events when time is of the essence," the letter said. "As it stands, this state of emergency has made it easier for these organizations to do work quickly and efficiently in ways that they would otherwise not be able to do. Emergency declarations for natural disasters often get declared too late and with too little time to let critical populations know where to go when they are in need of shelter."
The letter was issued Wednesday, May 5, by Storyline Community and signed by organizations such as Clackamas Women's Services, LoveOne Community, Homeless Solutions Coalition of Clackamas County, Greater Good Northwest and Clackamas Service Center, Leaven Community, Northwest Family Services, Impact NW, Northwest Housing Alternatives, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Clackamas County and others.
According to the letter, the county's emergency declaration is used on a daily basis to provide shelter to at least 120 people across four facilities, and rescinding it would create uncertainty for the service providers helping to connect unhouse people to these resources.
"More imperatively, it would create chaos in the lives of these individuals, many of whom are still stabilizing from the traumatic experience of homelessness," the letter said. "What will happen to that support in the gap between the rescinding of that order and the arrival and implementation of the supportive housing services Metro bond dollars?"
Eboni Brown, executive director of Greater Good Northwest, is one of those who signed onto the letter requesting that the board of county commissioners slow down, hear public testimony and reconsider the impact of rescinding this declaration.
Brown said she agrees that having this declaration in place allows organizations like hers and others to be more nimble than they'd otherwise be in responding quickly to the needs of local unhoused people. She also believes that the swiftness with which the county is moving is a tactic to quell input from the community on this topic.
"If they believed what they were doing is truly right, they would be giving options for the public to speak," Brown said. "Obviously, when you move this quickly, it's because you're trying to make swift and severe decisions. This is not their first rodeo. These are professionals who know what this type of action means."
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