rich4Many are concerned that too many bills careen through the capitol during legislative sessions and don’t allow enough time for their thoughtful consideration. Some bills simply skulk in committees all session until they surface for last-minute floor votes. Others are “gutted and stuffed” minutes before hearings that were scheduled with only an hour’s notice. Many are passed “declaring an emergency” that effectively prevents citizen challenges at the ballot box.

Last session, two lobbyists repeatedly testified incompletely, if not dishonestly, and minimized their bill’s impact on Oregon cities and our venerated land-use planning system.

They claimed their bill, Senate Bill 1573, would bring more land on the market and finally end decades of unaffordable housing. There is no connection between Senate Bill 1573 and affordable housing but too many legislators were willing to trust these guys. This latest “Builders Bill” passed by slim margins; five in the Senate and four in the House.

Senate Bill 1573 revoked long-held annexation voting rights embedded in city charters. It snubs the Oregon Constitution but the Governor’s signature of approval was the match that lit it on fire. Now the conflagration is sweeping through Oregon cities, creating doubt about the constitutional authority of city charters and confusion about how to proceed with annexations.

SB 1573 effectively authorizes the legislature to amend city charters at any time and for any reason. Imagine the legislature running your town and you get the idea.

City charters are like city constitutions, we use them to guide and control our local governments. Thanks to William S. U’ren and the Direct Legislation League’s multiyear campaign (1876-1879) our charters have been protected from legislative interference since 1906!

We call it “home rule” and it protects Oregonians from the whims of self-serving interests like Oregon Homebuilders Association (developers) and Oregonians in Action (land speculators). By deleting voting on annexations from 33 charters, SB 1573 censors Oregon Statewide Planning Goal 1, citizen involvement, for about 650,000 Oregonians

But the Oregon Constitution is very clear; only citizens of a city can amend their charters:

“Section 2. Formation of corporations; municipal charters … The Legislative Assembly shall not enact, amend or repeal any charter or act of incorporation for any municipality, city or town. The legal voters of every city and town are hereby granted power to enact and amend their municipal charter,    (Article XI Section 2)”

Through the years citizens in 33 communities successfully petitioned for voting on annexations and amended their charters. We did this in Salem in 2000. Voting provides local citizens and taxpayers significant democratic community control over growth.

Corvallis and Philomath councils are honoring their city charters and the Oregon constitution by allowing voting to continue. Our council should follow their lead and not yield home rule local control to the legislature.

The Builders Bill sets a precedent for the legislature to dominate city government. That’s why Corvallis and Philomath filed briefs in June asking Benton County District court to decide if SB 1573 is constitutional.

Citizens must resist when faced with unjust or immoral laws. That’s why the League of Oregon Cities is taking the lead role in this pleading.

That’s also why “friend of the court” briefs are expected from the League of Women Voters, the League of Women Voters of Oregon and Oregon Communities for a Voice in Annexations. Other cities are likely to file amicus briefs, Salem council should direct staff to file too.

Like all councilors, Salem Councilors are sworn to uphold their charter. Corvallis and Philomath are doing that by refusing to obey the Builders Bill as they seek clarification from the court.

Salem council should stand with cities that are relying on the authority of their charters and defending them from legislative overreach.

Richard Reid Co-Chair Oregon Communities for a Voice in Annexations OCVA.Org