Recall election ballots for Ward 7 Eugene City Councilor Claire Syrett are due Sept. 6. A lawsuit, however, could stop the election. At the heart of the issue is a proposed expansion of the EmX bus rapid transit on River Road as part of the city of Eugene and Lane Transit District’s MovingAhead project.
MovingAhead seeks to improve safety and access for people walking, biking, using mobility devices and riding public transit along key corridors in Eugene, according to its website.
On Aug. 18 Syrett and her political candidate committee, Claire Syrett for Eugene City Council, filed a complaint with the Lane County Circuit Court stating that petitioners made false statements to support the recall. State law bars the use of false information on recall petition forms. The complaint says “these statements make assertions of objective fact that are false and cannot reasonably be interpreted in any manner that would make them factually correct.”
The complaint requests the court affirm the assertion that the signatures gathered were secured through fraud and to toss any signatures garnered using that fraud.
The Ward 7 district Syrett represents encompasses the Trainsong, Whiteaker, River Road and Santa Clara neighborhoods. Syrett, a labor union activist, was first elected to the City Council in 2012. She is currently in treatment for stage IV rectal cancer.
The complaint names Meta Maxwell and her partner, Mark Osterloh, in addition to several other individuals, the petition committee, Eugene Business Alliance, Lane County Elections and the Eugene City Recorder.
Contrary to the claims made by the recall petitioners, the complaint says, no final decisions have been made or approved related to building EmX on River Road — including if it will be expanded to River Road at all. Because these decisions have not been officially made, the campaign says the petitioners framing them as facts is false.
The petitioners also falsely claimed the MovingAhead project will reduce River Road to one car lane each way, the complaint alleges, adding that the petitioners falsely say the project will take “substantial private property from businesses” including parking spots and trees and that taxes will be increased to expand EmX to River Road.
The campaign further says that no final design or decision has been approved on how EmX will be configured if built on River Road, no decision has been made to support the claim that substantial private property will be taken, and there is no proposal to increase taxes or evidence to suggest a tax increase would be necessary.
In an official response, the recall effort claims that the arguments in the lawsuit are “baseless.” The defendants say that the statements made in the petition are not false, and can be found in the “MovingAhead Alternatives Analysis Report” from September 2018.
Maxwell, who is spearheading the recall effort, says Syrett has been dismissive of constituents who do not agree with the MovingAhead project. Maxwell says she personally contacted residences and businesses along the roads mentioned in the analysis report, and found the majority had not heard of or seen the project proposals written in the report.
After gaining more than 400 signatures, including more than 150 from people in and around Ward 7 with many residing or working on River Road, on a petition to stop MovingAhead early this year, Maxwell says that Syrett still voted to move forward with the project. Syrett voted with five other city councilors on “a resolution approving of MovingAhead locally preferred alternatives.” After the vote, Maxwell began collecting signatures on the recall petition, which she says garnered well more than the required 1,365 signatures.
“There was just overwhelming support to recall her,” Maxwell says, “people who had tried to reach out, not gotten a response or got a very unsatisfactory response.”
Recent social media posts have pointed out that Maxwell and Osterloh don’t live in Ward 7. Maxwell says where she lives is irrelevant to the discussion. She says she does not live in the ward, but her family has “deep roots” in that area, and for two and a half years she split her time between Eugene and California due to Osterloh’s employment in that state.
Former EWEB commissioner Sandra Bishop, who has been closely working with Maxwell, says, “It is absurd for people to be distracted into questioning whether one person working on local issues, where they live or how many years they have spent out of town.” Bishop was also a vocal opponent of EWEB’s water storage tanks near 40th and Patterson, which are being constructed to have water available for fire suppression and drinking water distribution in the event of an earthquake. Those who signed the recall petition do live in Ward 7, Bishop says.
Syrett’s volunteer campaign coordinator, Daniel Isaacson, says, “In my 20-plus years of being involved in Eugene public policy, I have never seen such an abuse of our electoral system by outside forces.” Isaacson is vice chair of the Eugene Planning Commission.
He says of Maxwell and Osterloh: “The petitioners and their financiers not only live outside Ward 7, but if they are successful, the remaining city councilors would choose her replacement, meaning literally every Eugene resident would have a say-so in who represents Ward 7 except the residents of Ward 7.”
Isaacson, who resides in Ward 7 adds, “Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think my neighbors here in the ward are the best deciders of who best represents them.”
Bishop says the recall isn’t just about MovingAhead, but also the way Syrett has handled other issues such as crime and middle housing. Many constituents did not feel heard on these issues as well, Bishop says. Syrett has voiced support of Black Lives Matter and for increasing housing and shelter options.
Syrett says that the MovingAhead documents Maxwell points to, when arguing the petition’s claims are valid, are old and should not be viewed as the final design of the project. Viewing them that way is inaccurate, she says.
“A view of the MovingAhead website will confirm that the next phase of the process will involve a great deal of public outreach and input to refine a final design proposal,” Syrett says in an email. “I cannot explain why they believe these documents form the basis for recalling a duly elected city councilor.” Syrett won her 2020 election with a 60 percent majority.
Syrett also says that the petitioners’ claims that she voted to advance a project that will have the adverse effects the petitioners list are false. The March 14 City Council resolution shows that the council vote identified the “locally preferred alternatives” as described in the 2018 report. With this identification, the staff will “conduct design refinement, coordinate with property owners and permitting agencies, schedule corridor improvements, and pursue funding,” the report states.
In the email, Syrett also says the MovingAhead website contains summaries of community engagement throughout the multi-year planning of the project.
“The next stage of the project will provide a great deal of opportunity for public input that will shape how the projects are implemented on the ground,” Syrett says. “People can sign up to be in an interested parties email list to stay updated on those communities.”
Syrett calls the recall an abuse of power. She says in her email, “I have fought and survived stage four cancer, and I have confidence that I will prevail with the help of my many supporters in this fight to protect our democratic processes.”
This story has been updated to clarify while Syrett voted with the five other city councilors on the MovingAhead resolution, it was the LTD board whose vote was unanimous. Isaacson was referring to Maxwell and Osterloh when discussing the petitioners who do not live in Ward 7. Chief petitioners Gerald Morton, who was named in the lawsuit but not named in the story, does live in Syrett’s ward.