County Power Grab

Lane County Commission usurps democratic freedoms

The Lane County Board of Commissioners, at the behest of Dennis Morgan, a local businessman and conservative political activist, is considering a proposal to grant themselves authority to review Lane County citizen initiatives, which have met all legal standards for placement on the ballot. The proposal would allow the board to declare that an initiative does not meet the board standard for “county concern” and, thereby, to bar it from the ballot.

Succinctly put, the commission would grant itself preemptive veto power over all initiatives proposing Lane County ordinances. Initiatives would be submitted to voters only if the Board of County Commissioners pre-approved them. The proposal is the most egregious power grab I’ve seen in the 45 years I’ve lived in Lane County.

Recent Register-Guard stories have revealed that the measure mirrors a lawsuit, which was recently dismissed in Lane County Circuit Court. While the proposed measure uses the same key term, “county concern,” as the metric for veto consideration and seeks the exact goal, the board’s vetoing of an initiative measure by disallowing it to be considered by voters, Mr. Morgan claims he was unaware of the just-dismissed lawsuit or its content and goals when he submitted his measure.

The lawsuit was “fronted” by Harrisburg grass seed farmer and conservative activist, Marie Bowers, who was the sole listed plaintiff in the case. Bowers acknowledged the case was financed by “a coalition of farm and forestry interests,” but refused to name them.

Circuit Court Judge Charles Carlson dismissed the lawsuit, declaring the county clerk’s sole responsibility in determining an initiative’s approval for placement on the ballot was judging that it addressed a “single subject as required by the state Constitution.” He determined that the ordinance sought in the lawsuit was a violation of the State Constitution — that the preemptive veto based on “county concern” (or lack thereof) was an unconstitutional infringement on Oregon citizens’ right to the initiative process.

Despite Judge Carlson’s dismissal of the Bowers’ (and unlisted et al) lawsuit and despite the clear protection the state Constitution provides for the initiative process, three of the Commissioners (Bozievich, Stewart and Leiken) seem committed to advancing the veto measure proposed by Morgan. The measure is now with county counsel, being prepared for a “first reading” toward adoption.

The initiative, referendum and recall are three very specific powers provided to citizens in the U.S. Constitution and the Oregon Constitution. They are opportunities for citizens’ direct involvement in seeking “redress of grievance” and, of considerable importance, they’re citizen checks on the abuse of power by an over-controlling government. They are key blocks in the very foundation of American democracy. For citizens to surrender their right to the initiative to a County Commission or other governing body is unthinkable.

The initiative and the recall have their own “checks” to shortstop frivolous and unwarranted efforts. They require a significant number of signatures on petitions before they will qualify for the ballot. We’ve recently seen recall efforts in Lane County fail because of an inability to get such signatures.

Most initiative petitions, likewise, fail to achieve enough signatures to reach the ballot. If an initiative or recall petition does qualify for the ballot, it is then subject to the vote of the citizens. We just saw a recall effort fail badly in Harney County. If an initiative reaches the ballot, county commissioners will have every opportunity to campaign either for or against it. We voters are “big boys and girls” and will study such proposals and make-up our own minds. Lastly, any initiative passed, like any law passed by a legislative body, is subject to judicial review and can be invalidated by a court.

This preemptive veto measure is a terrible, undemocratic idea designed to usurp the public’s political freedom by granting a governing body, in this case the Lane County Board of Commissioners, the authority to, quite literally, stifle the will of the people. It must be stopped. — Gary Crum