Legal action seeks to force Loretta Smith to resign now
Updated with filing, additional context.
A Portland campaign-finance reform activist is taking his election-law complaint against Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith to the next level.
Seth Woolley, a former Pacific Green Party nominee for secretary of state, filed a legal action Tuesday, Jan. 16 to force Smith's immediate resignation from her $103,000-a-year job even as she runs for what may be her next position — the seat being vacated by outgoing City Commissioner Dan Saltzman.
At issue is a 36-year-old provision of the county charter that says "no elected official of Multnomah County may run for another elective office in midterm without resigning first," until they enter the final year of their term.
The charter does not explicitly define what running means, causing several of Smith's commissioners to recently say it needs to be clarified to reflect voters' intent.
Smith entered her final year on her county post this month, but began actively campaigning for the City Council seat several months ago.
Smith said that her office was informed by the Multnomah County Attorney that only a formal filing with the county elections office would constitute running. But Woolley argues that campaign activities short of a formal filing also would fall afoul of the provision, such as Smith's formal campaign announcement Sept. 12.
Woolley, who filed an earlier complaint that led to the state elections office fining Smith $250, said he has finished exploring legal options and expected to file a legal action Tuesday morning that will name Smith personally.
"I'm saying that she should have resigned effective September 12," Woolley said of his court filing.
Smith, on Saturday, said she couldn't predict the outcome of a court filing, but felt her campaign had stayed within the law: "I did what the county attorney told me to do. I followed her instructions and I followed the county charter."
That was a softer tone than her earlier comments in which she rejected the legal questions around the charter provision as a non-issue. "I don't know why we're even still talking about it," she said on Dec. 22.
Smith's more recent comments came shortly after a formal campaign kickoff event she held at an Urban League of Portland meeting hall to fire up supporters, solicit contributions and discuss her plans. About 90 people attended, including former fellow Multnomah commissioners Diane McKeel and Jules Bailey. Several praised her leadership on a county summer jobs program, as well as her work on senior issues and workforce equity at the county.
"I know that this is going to be tough, really, really tough," Smith said of the race for council.
Woolley's legal action could make Smith's campaign tougher. He's filed what's called a legal writ of alternative mandamus, essentially a lawsuit that names Smith personally.
Smith has 30 days to respond with her legal arguments — meaning the court action will occur as the campaign for the May primary heats up.
It's unclear whether the county would pay for Smith's defense. While the commissioner says she relied on legal advice from the county attorney, the county attorney is legally prohibited from doing campaign-related work for commissioners.
The only written input County Attorney Jenny Madkour provided to Smith, an email, does not provide a clear answer to the legal question raised by Woolley and explicitly advises Smith to consult her own attorney on the matter.
Smith has said she's being held to a different standard than a her former county commissioner colleague, Bailey. He declared his intent to run for Portland mayor in late November 2015, five weeks before his final year in office began, but was not hit with a complaint.
"I'm an African-American woman," Smith has said of the difference.
Bailey, in a tweet, has said he shares Smith's interpretation of the charter, and suggested a double standard is at work.
Some election lawyers say state election law focuses on activities, not formal filings to determine whether someone is running.
Smith came to campaign finance reformers' attention with her vocal opposition to county-election contribution limits approved by voters in November 2016. Late last year Woolley, one of the activists, filed a complaint against her for accepting contributions in excess of the county limits without changing her campaign committee to reflect her run for council.
Woolley, who filed two complaints against Charlie Hales in 2013 over his mayoral run and twice sued then-Secretary of State Kate Brown to try to enforce them, said his activism is not personal. He intends to file dozens of additional election complaints against other candidates based on Secretary of State Dennis Richardson's recent finding that Smith's failure to update her campaign committee did violate law.
Other candidates who've filed for Saltzman's seat include former state lawmaker Jo Ann Hardesty; a staffer to Mayor Ted Wheeler, Andrea Valderrama; and neighborhood association president Felicia Williams. Architect Stuart Emmons is also expected to run.