Clackamas County’s grass-roots rebellion

by Dave Lister

Clackamas County is in rebellion. From overturning a vehicle registration fee to help fund a replacement for the Sellwood Bridge to an overwhelming victory in requiring a countywide vote on any new or expanded urban renewal districts, a burgeoning grass-roots movement is using the initiative process to insist that the residents of the county have the right of self-determination. The latest initiative, which likely will easily gather the requisite signatures to appear on the ballot this fall, would require a countywide vote before county participation in funding any rail transit systems. The petitioners, along with those who support them at the ballot box, are saying clearly that they don’t want to be Portland, they don’t want to be Multnomah County, and they don’t think the Metro regional government’s master planning should dictate the way they live, work or move around.

The rebellion can trace its roots to the unlikely community of Damascus. Within a few years of the 2004 incorporation, Damascus residents responded to what they viewed as heavy-handed rule by their newly formed City Council with successful initiatives requiring popular votes on new city taxes, protection of property owners from eminent domain and compensation for lost value because of land-use regulation. Damascus still figures into the rebellion because its current mayor, Steve Spinnett, is a chief petitioner of the proposed rail measure, along with Lake Oswego City Councilor Mary Olson and Jim Knapp of the Oak Lodge Water District. John Ludlow, former mayor of Wilsonville and candidate for Clackamas County chair, is also supporting the petition. They all have slightly different takes on the effort but share a common belief that too often officials view their elections as a mandate to impose their will on the electorate, rather than a responsibility to represent the electorate.

“For me, this movement is about giving the people a voice and a vote they currently don’t have,” Olson says. “We’re not anti-transit — far from it. I’d support better bus service if we could get it.”

Spinnett’s take is similar. “In a perfect world,” he says, “elected leaders would represent the people. But in the real world, we need the initiative process to protect the people. The people have the right to say no.”

Passage of the initiative would not, in and of itself, stop the Milwaukie light-rail line, and questions remain over potential litigation by TriMet if the voters force Clackamas County to renege on its commitment to the project. But petitioners think withdrawal of the county’s financing could disrupt the project’s already precarious overall funding, particularly federal participation.

Knapp is encouraged by the enthusiasm of both the signature gatherers and the people lining up to sign the petition. “There was a 90-year-old woman who called me and insisted that she be the first to sign,” he told me. “Another fellow, a software designer who never leaves his desk, is out knocking on doors. The participation of the grass roots on this is amazing.”

In a March 13 special election, the rebellion will return to its cradle in Damascus when residents vote on Measure 3-389, which would require popular voter approval of any comprehensive land-use plan developed by the city. The clear goal of the measure’s supporters is to give the people a vehicle to contest mandated density requirements. “Damascus residents may vote for less density than the Metro plan,” Spinnett explains. “If Damascus is successful in telling Metro and the state what we are willing to do, other communities will see they can do it, too.”

Dave Lister is a small-business owner who served on Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council.