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After abortive 'Hail Mary' initiative effort, citizens ask commissioners to attempt another levy

After saying last week that the county will not attempt another campaign for a measure to fund the Columbia County Jail, County Commissioner Earl Fisher opened the door Wednesday, Jan. 29, to pursuing another levy option, provided commissioners see a show of public support.

St. Helens City Councilor Susan Conn appeared before the Board of County Commissioners at the start of its Wednesday morning meeting in the Columbia County Courthouse to ask that the county make another attempt to get a jail levy passed.

“I think the support is building now,” Conn said. “I’d like a chance to prove it to you.”

Conn said she will gather signatures from supporters of a second levy effort and bring them back to the county commissioners as a display of public backing for a prospective ballot measure.

Fisher, who has frequently played the role of chief advocate on the jail issue among the three commissioners, responded favorably to Conn’s request.

“I think if we get enough of those signatures, I think the board will be very interested in doing just that,” Fisher said of placing a second levy on the ballot.

Columbia County voters rejected a $9.57 million operating levy that would have funded jail operations for four years last November by a margin of 16.6 percentage points. Several levy opponents criticized county officials for not engaging with the community more and not making a stronger case for why the levy is needed.

But county commissioners and Sheriff Jeff Dickerson have warned that without additional revenue, the jail will close this year, probably by June 30.

Conn is part of a small group of citizens called Columbia County Works Together. The group’s formation was announced by St. Helens resident Randy Sanders in a blog post Tuesday morning.

Sanders told the Spotlight Tuesday morning that his group intended to try to get a citizens’ initiative onto the May ballot.

But in order to qualify a citizens’ initiative for the May ballot, Sanders and his group would have had to submit 1,211 valid signatures from registered voters in the county to the Columbia County Elections Department by Feb. 19. The number is, by statute, 6 percent of the number of votes cast in the county for governor at the last gubernatorial election, in 2010.

And in order to begin gathering signatures, the petitioners had a number of steps to take that appeared likely to eat up the limited time before the deadline.

Any initiative must first be filed with the Columbia County Elections Department, giving elections supervisor Pam Benham five days to verify its constitutionality. Then it must go to the district attorney’s office so that ballot language can be drafted, which Benham said might take another five days. After that, the ballot title will be published for a week, giving any citizens who dispute the way it is worded time to object; any objections, Benham added, would be heard in Columbia County Circuit Court. Once the title is finalized, the chief petitioners must get their signature sheets approved. They must also file a statement of organization with the state elections division.

Only once the petition has cleared those hurdles could Sanders, Conn and other petitioners begin collecting valid signatures, Benham said.

“They’d better be getting on it, if they’re going to do it,” she said Tuesday.

By Tuesday afternoon, Sanders said there were simply too many obstacles to go ahead with his plans.

“The citizens’ initiative route is just too tight,” Sanders said. “We’re not going to be able to do it. We don’t have the time.”

Sanders had described the effort earlier Tuesday as a “Hail Mary pass.” He said he believes the consequences will be dire if the jail closes, as county officials have warned it almost certainly will by the end of June without additional revenue. The county’s reputation could suffer if the jail closes, and businesses may not want to invest in a county with no correctional facility, he suggested.

“It’s just going to be awful,” Sanders said, adding, “You’ve got to realize, it’s going to affect every town.”

After the meeting Wednesday, Fisher said he hopes to see “somewhere between 750 and 1,000” signatures in support of a second levy effort.

“It shows that there’s some support out there for it,” Fisher said. “So that would be the kind of level I’d be looking at.”

The commissioners are not operating on as tight a timeframe as state law requires for a citizens’ initiative. Fisher said the board could refer a measure to the ballot for the May 20 primary election as late as March.

Sanders said Thursday morning that Columbia County Works Together will be leading this year’s levy effort, despite the county government’s involvement.

“The commissioners are not running this,” Sanders said. “We’re going to run it. We’re just using them to expedite the process.”

by: FILE PHOTO - Columbia County Commissioner Earl FisherThen and Now: Earl Fisher

  • June 19, 2013: “If we don’t get the levy, there is no reason to think that we will be able to keep the jail open after next year. I think that would just be a disaster.”
  • Aug. 7, 2013: “It is becoming more and more crucial every day that this levy be passed.”
  • Oct. 30, 2013: “I know there are some folks that are always looking for excuses not to do something, but the excuse is going to be that if they don’t vote for this, in two weeks, this room will be full of people who are upset that we don’t have a jail. All I can say to them is, ‘That’s your problem. You voted for it. You need to make sure that you stand up and be responsible as citizens.’”
  • Nov. 6, 2013: “I think a lot of people worked very hard to try to get it passed, but it didn’t happen, so we’ll have to live with the results.”
  • Jan. 15, 2014: “If you wait and we have more meetings and we have more discussion and we do all of that stuff that we do at those meetings, and nobody does anything, by default, there will be nothing filed on the [May] ballot. … So if you have any interest, go out and get the signatures.”
  • Jan. 29, 2014: “I think if we get enough of those signatures, I think the board will be very interested in [placing another jail levy on the ballot].”
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