By Shelby Sebens | Northwest Watchdog
PORTLAND — With a $1.5 billion light rail expansion project creeping closer to their community, the residents of Clackamas County refuse to stand idly by.
No matter what side of the tracks Clackamas County residents stand on when it comes to deciding if they want light rail, they won’t be accused of apathy. As vote-by-mail ballots continue to pour in for a special election on rail projects Tuesday, the turnout is already on pace to exceed the county’s last special election that dealt with only ballot measures.
Residents will decide Tuesday if voter approval should be required when county resources are used to finance, design, build or operate any public rail transit system.
If trend continues, Clackamas could see a 44 percent voter return in this election that includes just the light rail initiative. That would exceed the Nov. 8, 2011 special election for two ballot measures, which saw a 39 percent voter return, Steve Kindred, Clackamas County Elections Manager, said.
“That’s as comparable as we can really come to it,” he said. They’re all different.”
With residents like Thelma Haggenmiller and David Jorling jumping in the fight, it’s not a surprise the interest is high.
Haggenmiller, who turns 80 in October and has lived in the unincorporated part of Clackamas County for decades, refers to herself as “the public.”
“I’m a little better informed than your average next door neighbor,” Haggenmiller said. She’s a staple at government meetings and someone public officials have come to learn cannot be ignored. “I’m very hopeful that the citizens can affect what happens in our lives. I don’t give up. I don’t go away,” she said.
Since discussion of expanding light rail into Clackamas began in the 1990s, Haggenmiller has been fighting against it and tensions have soared as county commissioners continue to move forward with helping pay for a 7.3-mile stretch from Portland State University to Oak Grove.
“First of all the citizens have been very vocal about light rail for a long time and we’ve been meeting with deaf ears,” Haggenmiller said. “Even though those deaf ears have been asked to put it to a vote of the citizens they do not trust their citizens enough to do that.”
The special election is a result of a citizen initiative pushed by James Knapp, an Oak Grove resident who also has joined the legal fight against the commissioners’ attempted bond sale to help pay for the project.
The Clackamas County Commissioners suspended a $19 million bond sale that was planned to take place before Tuesday’s election. This was amid Haggenmiller’s legal fight that reached all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court. She filed a lawsuit challenging the county’s authority to sell bonds for the project. But the court this week ruled in favor of Positively Clackamas, an group of citizens fighting Tuesday’s ballot measure, Haggenmiller’s attorney Kristian Roggendorf said. The Supreme Court’s order lifted a stay it had previously imposed on the bond sale. The county is free, for now, to go after bond money for the project.
Jorling, a resident of Lake Oswego and former attorney for the Portland City Attorney’s Office, joined Positively Clackamas when it originated.
“It just kind of spread like a spiderweb and we found a lot of people at a grassroots level who opposed this measure,” he said.
Jorling said the group he joined, Positively Clackamas, has about 15-20 core members. He said they don’t oppose a vote on the light rail project but believe the initiative on Tuesday’s election could do more harm than good.
“I think it’s clearly unconstitutional,” he said. “In our view this is going to be a huge waste of taxpayer dollars.” The special election costs about $125,000 and is the only initiative on the ballot.
Positively Clackamas argues the ballot initiative actually would keep people from being able to vote on a rail project because county staff would not be able put any rail initiatives on a ballot to begin with. Ballots for the special election must be turned in by 8 p.m. on election day to one of the drop locations across the county or via mail (postmarks don’t count).
Jorling supports the light rail expansion, saying the area is growing and something is going to have to be done to accommodate travel for that growth. The impact of Tuesday’s election remains to be seen. If the initiative prevails, it is unclear how that would impact the county’s plans to still borrow money to pay its obligation for the project. And Knapp has also started gathering signatures for a petition against the county’s bond sale that could drive another vote of the public in a March special election.
And Haggenmiller isn’t going away anytime soon. Roggendorf is ready at the aim as the issue rolls along.
“It’s the end of the beginning,” he said.