In an abrupt about-face, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on April 13 decided to defend the constitutionality of a campaign finance reform measure overwhelmingly approved by voters.
The change of stance was announced hours after dozens of reform supporters packed the board's Thursday morning meeting, protesting an earlier board decision to not defend the reform measure. Speakers noted repeatedly that 89 percent of the voters approved the change in November.
The voters "spoke loud and clear," said Juan Carlos Ordonez, who sat on the county committee that recommended the charter change. "If you respect the will of the people you should instruct the lawyers to go defend the measure."
The display of mass support for the measure was the culmination of a rapid organizing effort by lawyers Dan Meek and Jason Kafoury, as well as other volunteers with the campaign behind it.
"We thought that through a show of public pressure they would realize they were making a terrible mistake," said Kafoury, who is a cousin of board chair Deborah Kafoury.
Initially, even as reform supporters testified on Thursday morning, the county released a statement that sought to justify the county's decision the previous week, while confirming it still would not defend the measure during the validation proceeding.
By the end of the day, however, that changed. County lawyers "are going to defend the measure," said Multnomah County Communication Director Julie Sullivan-Springhetti on Thursday afternoon.
The April 13 change of stance did not entail a vote, but rather apparently was the product of an informal board consensus that was reinforced by the reformers' passionate testimony.
County Commissioner Sharon Meieran said she was happy that the board had "clarified" that it "will definitely be defending the measure in the validation proceedings before the court."
The reformers' ire stemmed from a board vote on April 6 to refer Measure 26-184, which amended contribution limits into the county charter, to Multnomah County Circuit Court to have it constitutionally validated. The ballot measure had been intended to spark a court challenge, allowing it to be appealed to the Oregon and U.S. Supreme Courts. There, it was hoped, the courts would reverse previous decisions that prohibited limitations on campaign contributions.
The complaints came because the board approved the county's attorneys' plan to not defend the measure, but instead stand on the sidelines. While those who wanted to fight about the measure's constitutionality could retain a lawyer and do so, the legal team for the county that approved the measure planned to sit things out.
"We don't advocate for or against it, we ask a court to tell us what we can implement, and then we will carry that forward," said Katherine Thomas, a deputy county attorney, at the April 6 hearing.
Four board members, while affirming their support for campaign finance reform, approved the plan.
Now, with the board's change of heart, the board still intends to send the measure for court validation. But it will submit a brief during that proceeding to support the measure's constitutionality.
"The Board of County Commissioners is committed to following the will of the voters by defending the measure in court," says the county's most recent statement posted online.
The previous version of the statement issued late Thursday morning only called for filing a brief defending the board's "support" of the measure. It did not say it would defend the legality.
The previous statement issued while critics testified was even weaker, saying the county would not defend the measure until after the validation proceeding was over.
On Thursday afternoon, the county spokeswoman, Sullivan-Springhetti, said that that earlier wording had been 'incomplete" and "unclear."
The earlier plan was intended to save the county staff time and funds. It was based on the calculation that trying to defend the measure as the reform advocates had sought would require first writing rules to implement the measure, implementing rules and then enforcing them to bring on an appeal — which would then would consume legal fees.
After the April 13 hearing, county staff informed activists that the county would defend the measure after all, only within the validation proceeding.
Meek, the lawyer and campaign finance reform advocate, said he will be watching to make sure the county's brief is a genuine legal argument and not a "puff piece."
Supporters of Measure 26-184 had designed it to give activists a path to revive campaign contribution limits in Oregon as well as independent expenditure regulations throughout the entire country.
The measure limited contributions to $500 in county elections, and also placed limits on independent expenditures — funds spent on influencing voters and elections but not directly contributed to a campaign.
The measure was designed to trigger an appeals fight that could overturn two precedents that have protected campaign contributions as free speech. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that the government can't restrict independent expenditures, opening the door to massive spending by nonprofits that conceal their donors.
And in 1997, the Oregon Supreme Court struck down contribution limits in Vannatta v. Keisling. As a result, Oregon is one of only six states to allow unlimited contributions.
Central to proponents' hopes on the federal level was the calculation that the U.S. Supreme Court would have a new justice chosen by a Democratic president, tipping the balance in favor of contribution limits.
Things didn't work out that way on the federal level, but the measure could still give activists another shot at the Oregon Supreme Court.
The county's support means "a much better chance of having it upheld in the courts," Jason Kafoury said.