Clackamas County Circuit Judge Michael C. Wetzel on Tuesday, Sept. 7, approved a petition to change the ballot title of an Oregon City measure seeking voter authorization to temporarily raise annual water rates above the charter limit for six years.
The petition, filed by Oregon City resident and former Mayor John Williams Jr., challenged the "insufficient," "misleading" and "unfair" ballot title and explanatory statement included in the city's Resolution 21-43 proposing a new method of funding improvements to the city's water system. If passed by voters in November, the city could increase water rates up to 3% above the current annual limit of 3% set by the Oregon City Charter, a cost increase equivalent to roughly $12.20 for a typical household in the area over the next six years, as opposed to the projected increase of $5.63 under the current limit.
Per Judge Wetzel's orders, the ballot title's caption will now read: "Authorizes temporary water rate increases above 3% annual charter limit."
The question will now read: "May City increase water rates up to an additional 3% annually over Charter limit for six years for system improvements?" with the City having the option to remove the word "Charter" if desired.
Williams and his attorney, Jesse A. Buss, filed the petition against the Oregon City Commission and City Attorney William K. Kabeiseman on Aug. 17. Under Oregon law, any voter dissatisfied with a ballot title may file a petition "stating the reasons the title filed with the court is insufficient, not concise, or unfair" and requesting the title be changed to better serve voters. Oregon law does not, however, state a dissatisfied elector may challenge explanatory statements.
In the petition, Williams claimed Oregon City's proposed explanatory statement was "not impartial, simple" or "understandable" as required by Oregon law.
"The ballot title is required to be a concise and fair statement of what is before the voters, not a campaign piece for those advocating for its passage," wrote Williams in the original petition. "It currently functions as a piece of advocacy, not a factual statement."
Williams took issue with all three parts of the ballot title: the caption, the question and the summary, outlining his concerns in an amended version of the petition filed on Aug. 24.
He deemed the caption, originally phrased: "Authorizes temporary water rate increase above 3% annual Charter limit," to be insufficient in its failure to identify the purpose of the rate increase and misleading in describing the increase itself as "temporary" when the only temporary aspect is the rate at which it will increase.
"Further, the caption is misleading because it references the current 3% Charter limit, but not the 6% limit sought by the City," added Williams in the amended petition.
Williams deemed the question, originally phrased: "May City increase water rates up to an additional 3% over Charter limit for six years for water system improvements?" to be insufficient and misleading for the same reasons; that the language did not clearly convey to voters that the raise would be 6% each year for six years.
The summary, which in its original phrasing gives reasoning for the rate increase and outlines proposed goals, Williams deemed to be misleading in that all listed goals were simply speculative and approval of the measure as currently phrased would not directly fund specific projects to achieve those goals.
He added that it did not explain how additional funds would be used, whether for direct improvements, to service debts, both, or neither.
Williams additionally challenged the city's proposed explanatory statement of the measure, claiming it to be "improper advocacy" and identifying inconsistencies in how the measure is explained in the statement as opposed to the resolution.
In the petition, Williams points out that the explanatory statement suggests the rate increase will be only "an additional 3% increase over six years," while the resolution specifies that the increase will be "up to 6% annually for six years."
Responding to the petition during an Aug. 27 hearing, Judge Wetzel granted Williams' ballot title changes, certifying an alternative caption, two alternative questions and an alternative summary to the city elections' officer.
However, he denied Williams' proposed changes to the explanatory statement, citing an absence of any statutory authority for such challenges to explanatory statements and that Williams did not identify any legal reason for the court to declare judgment.
Judge Wetzel ordered the summary to be edited to explicitly specify that the proposed rate increase is up to 3% "annually" and that the city's goals will require "additional/further action" by the City Commission, with the city having the option to choose between the words "additional" and "further."
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