Fire District Annexation Petition Signers Feel Heat From Fire Chief

By Matt Evans

It appears that Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue is targeting petition signers who successfully petitioned measures to a public vote. The petitions require existing TVF&R resident voter approval to accept the recent annexation of the City of Newberg and Newberg Rural Fire Protection District (RFPD).

Under ORS 198.866, voters who live in the existing TVF&R service district can petition to require TVF&R to hold a public vote to annex once they gather signatures from at least 10% of the electors in the district or 100 total electors, whichever is less.

The City of Newberg and the Newberg RFPD voted in November of 2017 to approve annexation into TVFR.  However, current residents of TVFR are concerned that the fire district is the fastest growing government in the state. The district serves nearly half a million people and almost a dozen cities and now wants to expand into an entirely new county to serve Newberg in Yamhill County. Some residents wonder what this empire-building means for their tax rates and level of service.

On December 18, 2017, district residents submitted more than enough signatures to qualify both annexation proceedings for a public vote. On December 19, at the Washington County Board of Commissioners meeting, the Commissioners grappled over whether or not to accept the signatures. Despite TVF&R’s claims that the Commission could reject the signatures and not require a public vote, the Commission voted 4-1 to accept the citizen-led petitions and hold an election.

An election will be held in March of 2018 and, per the existing statute, Washington County will require TVF&R to pay for the election.

Recently, many petition signers received correspondence directly from TVF&R Fire Chief Michael Duyck, acknowledging that the reason they received a letter is because they signed the petition. The letter asked them to contact TVF&R. Some petition signers interpreted this as voter intimidation, expressing fear that TVF&R would somehow retaliate against them for exercising their voting rights. Some letter recipients were even as young as 18 years old.

Targeting petition signers is not a new practice. In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled to block the names of petition signers in a heated ballot measure in Washington State regarding gay marriage rights. There, petition signers were being targeted and publicly shamed for signing that petition. The fight set off a public debate over whether a voter’s signature is a public act, like a vote in the Legislature or donating money to a political campaign, or a private act such as how an individual voted in an election.

Regardless of how voters view this issue, TVF&R disagreed with the need for a district-wide public vote and seemingly decided they would single out every voter who signed these petitions with a letter from the Chief himself. Careless? Or meant to intimate?

The referendum process in Oregon is a sacred process that voters cherish. It provides a backstop against reckless and inequitable public policy. Attempting to intimidate voters who are simply concerned about increased taxes, PERS liabilities, and service levels is hardly the way to begin a special election.

Evans is President of Wagontire Consulting, Inc., an Oregon firm that advises and lobbies on a broad range of public policy issues. He is the former Executive Director of Oregon Tax Research.