At the August 27th meeting of the Salem City Council, the Council set a new precedent when they voted six to three to take positions on four ballot measures that Oregonians will decide in the November 6th election. Included was Ballot Measure 105, which the Council voted to oppose. Measure 105 would repeal Oregon’s so-called “sanctuary law” prohibiting state and local law enforcement from assisting with enforcement of Federal immigration laws.

Interested citizens packed the Council chamber and presented about an hour of testimony, mostly addressing Measure 105. There was no testimony in favor of Measure 105.

The three Councilors who voted against taking positions on the four measures, Councilors Nanke, Lewis and McCoid, argued strongly that it was inappropriate for a city council to take positions on measures that are to be decided by the people.

“We are a republic, so we are representing the voters at the city council level,” said Councilor Nanke, “ [but] this is something that is going to all voters — so I support some [and] I oppose some of the positions on different things … but we’ve never done this before — why don’t we endorse some candidates? It is not our place because it is also up to the voters.”

Later in the debate, Assistant City Manager Kasey Duncan confirmed that in his seven years with the City, the Council had never taken a position on a ballot measure.

But Councilor Nanke’s argument is weak, and for several reasons.

First, the Salem City Council routinely takes positions on changes in state law that are being considered by the Legislature. The Council adopts “Legislative Policy Statements” to guide City staff and lobbyists hired by the City to advocate for and against bills that would have an impact on the City and its residents. The most recent of these was five pages long and addressed a myriad of issues dealing with economic development, public safety, land use, and the environment.

The four measures the Council addressed on August 27th would also change state law in ways that would impact the City and its residents. In the case of Measure 105, passage could have profound implications for the way our police department operates, and could put the lives of thousands of residents at risk.

A change in state law is a change in state law, regardless of whether it results from a vote in the Legislature or a vote of the people. To distinguish between the two, as Councilors Nanke, Lewis and McCoid wanted to do, makes no sense.

Another reason Nanke’s argument is weak when it comes to Measure 105 is that this measure, if passed, would directly nullify longstanding policies of the City of Salem. City Council Policy A-9 was passed shortly after the passage of the state “sanctuary” law two decades ago, and it was reaffirmed by a resolution passed unanimously by the Council on February 27, 2017, that says “the use of City funds, personnel or equipment for the enforcement of federal immigration law is prohibited.” Councilors Nanke, Lewis and McCoid all voted for that resolution. Why do they not think they need to defend it?

Another reason for the Council not to be bound by past precedent, but to set a new precedent, particularly when it comes to Measure 105, was stated eloquently by Councilor Sally Cook who noted that, “These are truly strange times.” She went on to say that, “Though we have never, to the institutional knowledge of this body taken stances on certain measures … at some point these decisions are not political, they become obligatory, they become an obligation of someone that’s a member and representative of my community to not politicize, but to stand with people, and to be unified — we’re linking arms and we’re together.”