Oregon City commissioners facing election in November want to enlist other cities in a fight to retain voters' rights to weigh in on annexations, despite a new state law that effectively erases such provisions in city charters.
Commissioners Denyse McGriff and Frank O'Donnell, facing a Nov. 3 decision by voters, insisted the city stand firm on its position to reject annexation proposals that aren't referred to the ballot. They received support from the other two commissioners during a Oct. 13 meeting; Mayor Dan Holladay, a supporter of the state law trumping city authority, was absent from the meeting.
In 2016, the Oregon House of Representatives voted 32-28 to approve Senate Bill 1573, which allows annexations to bypass voter approval if certain criteria are met. Following various reversals on annexation policy, McGriff sees home-rule authority as particularly important for Oregon City, which was established in 1844 — 15 years before the state in 1859.
"We have, like, super home-rule, I guess, if there is such a thing," McGriff said. "I have always been either of the informed opinion or the uninformed opinion that that had some merit."
O'Donnell said that he isn't going to compromise his long-held values just because Oregon's Court of Appeals rejected an appeal this May from the cities of Corvallis and Philomath.
"I always feel that the state continues to infringe on home-rule in many venues," O'Donnell said. "I'd love to have a review by League of Oregon Cities and see if there's any collective interest."
O'Donnell's opponent in the November election, Jeff Akin, is endorsed by the Home Builders Association of Metro Portland, which sees voter-approved annexations as another potential hindrance to maintaining a buildable supply of land to meet regional employment and housing needs.
Commissioner Rachel Lyles Smith said the land within the urban growth boundary is intended to become part of the city within 20 years anyway, potentially making voter-approved annexations a moot point.
"I do support home rule; I just wouldn't want to do the legal battle all by ourselves," Lyles Smith said. "It's a legal battle that we're going to lose, but it's one we could go in on."
Commissioner Rocky Smith said that it's Oregon City's time to take the lead, having saved some legal expenses by not taking part of the original lawsuit.
"There were a lot of people in this city who thought that we should have joined on this lawsuit to begin with, and I'm one of them," Smith said. "We let them do it on their own for us, and maybe it's our time to step up, and maybe that would generate some more interest in it."
If they're interested in challenging the appeals court decision, Oregon City's attorney recommended that commissioners work to remove a provision in the charter about annexations going to voters "unless mandated by law." The attorney said that another potential way to address concerns of voters would be to strengthen the codes and regulations that developers need to meet to receive annexation approval by the Oregon City Planning Commission or city commissioners.
For now, Oregon City's website will keep a statement from elected officials that the city won't approve annexations without a vote of the people. Emergency sewer annexations are exempt from this policy, but city officials are now bracing for a potential legal challenge from a developer seeking a larger annexation of buildable land into the city.
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