In a democratic republic, one of the fundamental rights of all citizens is to elect their leaders at all levels of government: federal, state, and local. In Oregon, another fundamental right is for the people to use the referendum, local and state-wide, to pass laws or to confirm the decisions of elected representatives. Two recent actions of the Oregon Legislature have undercut these rights and we think it is important to strongly protest.
According to the Oregon Constitution, Article XI, section 2, “The Legislative Assembly shall not enact, amend or repeal any charter or act of incorporation for any municipality, city or town.” Yet that is exactly what the Oregon legislature did when it passed SB 1573 during the 2016 session. Sponsored by Senator Lee Beyer and supported by the Oregon Homebuilders Association, the bill repealed local city charter amendments, including Salem’s, that required a public vote on all discretionary annexations. Special interests like the homebuilders and their allies in the real estate industry detested citizens’ right to confirm the decisions of local governments to annex additional land and thereby assume responsibility for many of the resultant costs. Without providing credible evidence, they argued that this bill would help alleviate the state’s deepening housing crisis, and they convinced the legislature to repeal citizen’s long-held right to vote on annexations. So much for Article XI.
The legislature took a similar action in 2018 when it passed SB 1536, which usurps the right of Salem voters, exercised for decades, to elect the seven-member Cherriots transit board. Legislators took this action quietly, the press scarcely reported on it, and there was no strong opposition in the Senate or House, in the Salem City Council, or even from Cherriots board members. There are two fundamental reasons why many supported this bill. The first is that it purports to bring Cherriots into line with Oregon’s other local transit boards, which are governor appointed rather than elected. Second, and more decisive, is that, after 2026, the appointed board will have the right to approve new taxes, such as a payroll tax like that used in Eugene instead of the inadequate property tax used in Salem, to fully fund transit service. It is this aspect of the law that was decisive among local politicians, all of whom are aware of Cherriots long-standing lack of revenue and the resulting service cuts.
Why an appointed board would be superior to an elected one has never been explained, so we do not understand the pressing need to dispose of Salem’s current system. On the other hand, we do not dispute the fact that Cherriots has long been underfunded and that new sources of revenue are needed. But where one stands on these issues is beside the point. Neither administrative uniformity nor the right to levy taxes justifies the state government’s usurpation of Salem citizens’ sovereign right to elect Cherriots leadership without a vote of the people. If Salem voters had made the decision to approve the new system, that would be keeping with the principle of popular sovereignty. What the legislature did, however, was to cast aside that principle in the name of expediency.
We are aware that there are often tensions between efforts to establish uniformity in statewide governance, which often makes sense, and localities’ rights to determine their own affairs. In our view, these tensions are best worked out through open, transparent democratic processes in which citizens’ sovereign rights are given primacy. That such processes were sidestepped in these cases represents a dangerous precedent and we urge voters to hold their representatives accountable.