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A mistake in printed ballots forces a March special election and extension of terms

With West Linn voters now selecting two new city councilors in March rather than November's general election due to a gaffe, and the possibility of Mayor Jules Walters winning her race for House District 37, the city of West Linn is likely to see a hectic start to 2023.

At its meeting Oct. 10, the City Council discussed the repercussions of ballots printed with incorrect information for the November general election. The ballots inadvertently instructed West Linn voters to select one candidate in the City Council election, rather than two.

To remedy the ballot blunder, Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan issued a directive last week to hold a special election in March 2023. The current five candidates for council — Councilor Bill Relyea, Leo Groner, Scott Erwin, Tanner Woody and Jefferson Bunte — will be the only candidates on the March ballot.

City Manager John Williams and City Attorney Bill Monahan explained to the council at the Oct. 10 meeting that this means councilors whose terms are set to expire in 2023 — Todd Jones and Bill Relyea — will continue their terms until their successors take office, according to the city charter.

Chapter 3, Section 10 of the charter states: "The term of office of an elective officer who is elected at a general election begins at the first Council meeting of the year immediately after the election, unless otherwise specified, and continues until the successor to the office assumes the office."

However, Jones stated during the meeting that he was unsure whether he would remain in office after the end of the year.

"It was certainly my intention to be done with my position in late December," Jones said. "I have no personal interest in going beyond December, but I'm going to work with city staff and the rest of you to determine what's in the best interest of the city to see what we need to do."

Jones began his term in 2021, filling the remaining two years of Walters' council seat after she took office as mayor. If he were to resign his seat in January, the council could appoint an interim councilor to serve in his place until his successor is elected.

Williams also explained that there shouldn't be much more than a month between the special election in March and when the newly-elected councilors take office.

One resident who gave public comment on the issue at Monday's meeting, CJ Koll, said he believed the decision to hold the election in March contradicted charter rules for four-year council terms.

He pointed to sections 8b and 8c, which note that councilors will be elected in general elections and serve four-year terms.

"In this case the election in March of 2023 will not be a general election. It will be a special election, which is contrary to our charter," Koll said.

He added that the terms of Jones and Relyea will also extend beyond four years.

Koll felt the election should be held before 2023 to avoid these charter conflicts. He also asked for a review of the charter, as he did at the first council meeting of 2021.

According to Williams, the Clackamas County Elections Division and secretary of state's office determined March was the earliest the election could be held due to the preparations necessary to ensure the election is fair and voters are properly notified of the issue.

"We were told by Clackamas County elections there was no way to run an election in December," he said. "They can't produce ballots in time."

Williams also noted that the city expects to pay $15,000-20,000 for the March election.

Monahan explained that other matters may be placed on the March special election ballot as well, but not a vote for mayor. If Walters were to win her race for the House seat, the mayoral position would be temporarily vacant but the charter states that the vacancy should be filled in the next May or November election.

According to Monahan, if one of the five current council candidates wanted to "hedge their bets" they could run for council in the March election as well as May's possible mayoral election.

In talks with the county and secretary of state's office, Williams said the priority was making sure voters understood the situation, ensuring the election was as fair as possible for voters and candidates.

"The issue began with us and we are committed to fixing it. We know it's going to be inconvenient to some and more than inconvenient to others, including candidates, and I apologize for that," Williams said. "We know that elections take a lot of time and effort. We know this community takes them seriously and wants to participate and I regret that we have to delay the election. I think it's going to have impacts for our council mechanics and work at the beginning of the year."


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