Proposed limitation to initiative law stirs debate.
My family settled in Oregon before statehood, and my upbringing gave me a lifelong interest in history and government. This interest, combined with long experience in state and local government, lead me to applaud the Lane County Board of Commissioners for proposing a process for the review of Lane County initiative measures.
During almost 25 years of law practice, before a second career in business, I was the partner in a private law firm responsible for the legal work of many Oregon cities from very small places like Drain to metropolitan Eugene. I took deep dives into the history of Oregon to argue the 20th century's most significant Home Rule case in the state Supreme Court.
Later I served Democratic Govs. Neil Goldschmidt and Barbara Roberts, and Republican Gov. Vic Atiyeh and Attormey General Dave Frohnmayer. I served in agencies from the Commerce Department to the Department of Justice, where I took a personal interest in the work of the secretary of state's office. Leading an economic turn-around at the State Accident Insurance Fund, I became better known than I wanted.
When I served, Oregon was a much less partisan place, with two successful political parties offering competing ideas. I considered myself one of many independent professional state managers dedicated more to good government than any party or cause.
With time in retirement to think about the lessons I've learned, the noisy attacks on the Lane County commissioners for trying to improve the local initiative process motivate me to rise to their defense. Urging the passage of a new law is unusual for me - my experience and instincts tend to favor limitations on the reach of government into our lives. But in this instance, the critics of a new ordinance could not be more mistaken as to what it will accomplish.
Since the 1900s, there always have been pre-circulation reviews of ballot measures. There are state election statutes that apply to some but not all counties, and some past practices that can only be found in court cases, attorney general's opinions and the decisions of the secretary of state. Very few people know all of the rules for elections, and many interested participants struggle to participate without legal assistance.
Simply put, our system of multi-level governments functions best when these rules and regulations from many sources are harmonized into local ordinances to guide local elections.
One rule around county measures requires that a proposal contain matters over which the county has "legislative authority." The term of art for this is "county concern," which simply means that a proposed law must be something that the county has the authority to enact. Additionally, proposed measures must be in plain language and address only one subject at a time. These rules are designed to inform voters and prevent sponsors from hiding their purpose.
A lesser-known requirement is that amendments to a county home rule charter must be presented one at a time for separate votes unless the sponsors go through the more complex process by which county charters are revised. The one-amendment rule, like the single-subject rule, is designed to prevent what is commonly called "log rolling" in legislatures. Log rolling, like vote trading, is the corrupt practice of combining a good idea with a bad one in order to pass both.
While log rolling is commonplace in legislatures, it is forbidden for initiative measures. Imagine the dilemma for voters if a local group put forth a county ballot measure that addressed climate change, but also limited abortions in Lane County.
All of these ballot measure requirements already exist, but a clear process for reviewing a county measure for compliance is lacking. An ordinance update by the commissioners will streamline the process, make it easier for people to participate and help keep "log rolling" and other corrupt practices away from local elections.
Some groups in our county have stated their intention to use the elections process to pass measures that they know are illegal so that they can set up litigation with the state and federal governments regarding laws they dislike. This practice is both inconsistent with the purposes of home rule and outside the boundaries of our system of democracy. Anyone who wants to change state laws must use the state ballots or make their case in the Legislature. Anyone who wants to change federal laws must try to elect candidates of their choice to federal office.
Some recently have suggested on these pages that having votes on invalid local measures might be good therapy for troubled minds - never mind the expense and inconvenience for the rest of us. Others have argued that only the court can decide what the Constitution requires or permits regarding local elections. I could not disagree more.
The commissioners would be derelict in their duty if they do not ensure that only measures meeting the statutory and constitutional requirements for an initiative make it to the ballot. In our system the courts have an important role to review, not make, local government decisions.
Residents of Lane County interested in good government owe the commissioners thanks, not fierce opposition, for trying to improve the transparency of the elections process by putting all the rules and regulations in one place for anyone to read and follow. I also urge the commissioners to continue to respect every voter and taxpayer by making sure that all measures meet legal requirements and are within the county's authority to adopt.