The Lane County commissioners are weighing giving themselves considerable new power over local ballot measures.
Under the unusual proposal, the commissioners would gain the authority to preemptively block any countywide ballot measure that they deem not to be “of county concern,” before it goes to voters or the courts.
The idea was brought forward last week by Dennis Morgan, a small-business owner and leader of a local conservative political action committee. He says its goal is to prevent the costs associated with elections or litigation for local measures that clearly contradict federal or state law and therefore will be thrown out in court eventually.
Under the current system, the courts won’t evaluate a measure’s legality until county voters have approved it and it is challenged.
Morgan’s proposal already appears to be on the fast track. On Tuesday, the board voted 4-1 to have county staff start drafting an ordinance on the issue.
“Why go through a process that’s expensive and time-consuming” for a measure that will be thrown out in court, Commissioner Faye Stewart asked.
But, he added, the proposed ordinance “is not me saying, ‘I personally disagree with an initiative, and I’m trying to stop it.’ ”
Morgan’s proposal comes as a group known as Community Rights Lane County is preparing to send two local ballot measures to voters next year.
One would ban the spraying of aerial pesticides on private forestlands. The other would give local voters the power to enact laws to protect “their health, safety and welfare” even if they conflict with state or federal law. Previously, the group proposed a local measure banning genetically modified foods.
Oregon state law specifically preempts any regulation at the county or city level of pesticides or GMOs. But groups in several counties still are trying to get voters to pass local measures in an effort to challenge or overturn those preemptions.
The county’s attempted pushback is sure to be controversial, as well. Oregon citizens’ right to the initiative process is protected in the state Constitution and efforts to add procedural hurdles to that process often are frowned on by the courts.
Moreover, Commissioner Jay Bozievich said Tuesday that he would like the county’s proposed ordinance to apply to measures that haven’t yet qualified for the ballot — which would include the Community Rights measures. That could be considered a retroactive change to local election law.
Ann Kneeland, a Eugene-based attorney for Community Rights, was unaware of the county’s proposal until Tuesday.
“It would not surprise me that (the commissioners) are doing this at the behest of corporate interests and particularly the forestry industry that backs them financially,” she said.
Kneeland said the proposed ordinance would give the commissioners considerable discretion to block measures since the term “of county concern” isn’t very clearly defined in statute.
“This is exactly the kind of government-corporate complicity that we’re trying to expose,” she said. “You can’t have five officials making decisions about what people can vote on.”
But Stewart said he doesn’t understand the purpose of championing local measures that won’t survive a legal challenge.
Advocates “are treating (local ballot measures) like a poll so they can influence officials at a higher level,” he said.
Bozievich said that campaign money spent by both sides on local initiatives that won’t survive a legal challenge “is flushed down the toilet.”
Should the county adopt the new vetting process for ballot measures, “I will probably err on the side of letting things through,” he said. “But some things are pretty clear-cut” in how they conflict with state or federal law.
Commissioner Pete Sorenson was the sole dissenting voice on the board Tuesday. He said the thought of “vetoing legislation before it advances” is “a really bad one.”
During his two decades as a county commissioner, Sorenson said he wasn’t aware of “any initiative petitions that have caused any problems in Lane County.”
“This whole thing is looking for a problem that has not presented itself,” he said.
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