After the Recall

Now that the votes have been tallied and Claire Syrett has been voted off the Eugene City Council, do lies matter anymore? 

By David Fidanque

The votes are in, and Claire Syrett’s days on the Eugene City Council may be over by the time you read this, but the misleading recall campaign against her raises important legal, political and moral issues about our local political landscape — especially because the leaders of the recall campaign have said publicly they want to recall other local officials as well.

Oregon’s Corrupt Practices Act forbids any person to publish or circulate any statement “with knowledge or with reckless disregard” that the information contains “a false statement of material fact relating to any candidate, political committee or measure.” This is the law that Syrett relied on in the lawsuit she filed against the recall petitioners and some of their supporters.

As of this writing, it appeared that Syrett may drop the suit because the defendants planned to file a motion that would make her responsible for their legal fees if she loses. That is unfortunate because the merits of the issues involved in the suit deserve more attention.

Her court filing alleged that the recall petitioners and campaign included at least four separate lies in the official recall petition and statement that appeared on the ballot, and that at least some of the petition circulators also misrepresented the effect of the recall while collecting the signatures needed to trigger the special election.

At the heart of the case is the fact that the recall proponents stated repeatedly, in their official paperwork filed with the city and in other public statements, that Syrett’s vote to advance the MovingAhead transportation project in March will result in removing two lanes of auto traffic from the current five lanes on River Road to make room for EmX.

In fact, none of the projects included in MovingAhead has had final approval. That won’t happen until after the plans are further refined, and there will be numerous additional opportunities for public input before any final votes are taken by the Lane Transit District Board and City Council. And, by the way, only one member of City Council, Mike Clark, voted against taking the planning to the next stage.

The recall petitioners also claimed that Syrett supported extending EmX service to River Road “despite the fact that taxes will need to increase to support operations and maintenance” for the system. In fact, adding EmX to River Road won’t happen unless state and federal funds are adequate to cover the vast majority of the construction costs. LTD’s operations and maintenance are funded through LTD’s payroll tax, and no one knows whether the current tax level will be adequate to cover those costs.

At a time when Donald Trump’s “big lies” about the 2020 election and many other topics are repeated ad nauseam, it may seem naive to argue that in Oregon we should actually expect those trying to remove someone from local or state office to tell voters the truth. But at the federal level, there is no equivalent of Oregon’s Corrupt Practices Act, which was enacted more than a century ago.

It is not a coincidence that Oregon elections have been relatively clean compared to just about anywhere else in the country — thanks to our Corrupt Practices Act. Sure, we often see hyperbolic attacks in closely fought elections here. However, at least until now, we’ve rarely seen campaigns built on lies.

This may be the latest signal that Oregon’s politics are becoming just as dysfunctional as the federal election system. However, the Oregon Corrupt Practices Act still may have some life in it. Any person who knowingly includes a false statement in a recall petition commits a crime, which can be subject to prosecution by the attorney general or to a fine imposed by the secretary of state.

Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, are you out there? Even if none of that happens in this case, it’s good to know those laws are still on the books if Oregon political campaigns get even worse.  

David Fidanque is not an attorney, but he worked for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon for 33 years before retiring in 2015. Note: Before joining the Eugene City Council 10 years ago, Claire Syrett also worked for the ACLU, where Fidanque was her boss during that time.