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Friday, October 24, 2003

Lookin' for blame in all the wrong places

Oregonian columnist Steve Duin really lit into Multnomah County -- particularly its elections chief, John Kauffman -- yesterday in a breathless column entitled, "This election is so corrupt as to be pointless." Duin blames the county and Kauffman for printing a misleading notice on the ballot for the PUD election now in progress in the Portland area (for background, see my previous post on the subject). And Duin suggests that the elections boss was somehow prejudiced in his conduct regarding the notice -- which proponents of the PUD are challenging in court -- by the fact that four of the five county commissioners are on record opposing the PUD measure.

As much as I like Duin's work generally, he's full of hot air on this one.

The county and Kauffman had no choice. Oregon law (ORS 280.070(4)) is crystal clear that any local option measure increasing property taxes must include the controversial "3 percent warning" on the ballot, no matter how small the proposed increase. The PUD's proponents say that the state law is unconstitutional, but unless and until ordered otherwise by a court of competent jurisdiction, the county must do what state law commands despite somebody's constitutional theory. In this country, we don't rely on elections chiefs to make constitutional law. (O.k., maybe in Florida...)

Can you imagine what would have happened if Kauffman had mailed out the ballots and hadn't included the warning? He would have been in clear violation of state statute. The PUD opponents would have dragged him into court, and the state attorney general would probably have joined in. Kauffman would have been branded a lawless renegade, and he might have lost his job.

If the warning is misleading -- and I think it probably is -- the fault lies not with the county, but instead with the Legislature, which passed the statute requiring it. And it lies in equal measure with the voters of Oregon, who passed Measure 50 and ordered the Legislature to require it.

To accuse the county and Kauffman of rigging the election is hogwash.

Duin is also quite animated in pointing out that U.S. District Judge Haggerty ruled that the warning was misleading, and ordered the county to publicly retract it. Duin doesn't mention the fact that the U.S. Court of Appeals rescinded Judge Haggerty's order a few days later -- in effect, saying that he never should have issued it.

This little electoral story gets nastier by the day. The power companies have behaved badly, disguising themselves as citizens' groups and trumping up a property tax issue that is hardly real. But now the PUD proponents are crying "fixed election" when everyone knew all along that the 3 percent warning would be on the ballot unless they could get the federal courts to strike it in time. And they didn't. And they still haven't.

One thing the county did that does raise my eyebrow was mail out the ballots last Friday morning, when it didn't have to do so until Tuesday of this week. County officials knew they were going before Judge Haggerty later on Friday, but they hustled the ballots off to the mailbox before the judge could order them to take the warning off. At least at first glance, that sure looks like dirty pool.

But if they had waited, Judge Haggerty would have required new ballots to be printed, without the warning. That weekend "rush" print job would have been extremely expensive, and it may have made it logistically impossible to meet the Tuesday deadline. Then, if and when the court of appeals reversed Judge Haggerty's order (as it likely would have), what would the county have done? Sent out a second round of ballots, with the warning reinserted? In avoiding those scenarios, the county may not have been totally innocent, but at least it was administratively prudent.

Maybe this election ain't fair, Steve, but if it isn't? Well, it ain't the county's fault. The PUDders need to redirect their venom -- to Bill Sizemore and the other fathers of Measure 50.

Comments (4)

Politics -- it is a great sport isn't it. Can we blame the Greeks?

What I don't like about any public body owning a utility is that we then have to endure the presumtion that they make decisions in the "public interest." Whereas with private ownership we can still argue about what is "just and reasonable[.]"

Imagine a public body, in the future, saying that it is in the public interest to oppose solar power initiatives because it would interfere with the public's interest in making a profit from their public utility.

Uh, Ron-
Public Power entities are non-profits.
Show me one, just one People's Utility District which has higher rates than PGE's current rates, let alone is a "for profit" entity.

And Jack-
The Appeals Court didn't "reverse" Haggerty's decision, they put a stay on its execution---as you did mention in an earlier snippet. I agree, the effect is the same given votes are being cast daily.
Still, your criticisms of the PUD campaign's challenging the county's 3% tax wording misses the point. The point is NOT that this is any more unfair than any other measure which had this wording applied to a measure, rather, it's only the PUD campaign which ever bothered to challenge the wording. The wording is wrong and misleading. It's about time someone challenged it. Haggerty was right to note this. The Appeals Court does us all a disservice in allowing this misleading wording to appear on the ballot, and then severely misused intentionally by those opposing such measures by simply quoting the ballot title. Look at PGE/Enron's publicity ads referring to these very words. No such campaign should fall victim to this, let alone one which only wants to fund a $150,000 engineering report which tallies up PGE's assets.

-Myles Twete, Multnomah PUD candidate

Myles, you may be right, it's a crying shame, but it's not the county's fault.

And I didn't say the Ninth Circuit reversed Judge Haggerty's decision. I said it rescinded his order. Which is exactly what it did.

Perhaps you're right Jack.
It's really a moot issue.
I thought the appeals court put a 'stay of execution' on the order. You're saying that 'rescinding' the order is exactly the same thing. I honestly don't know. But, like I said, either way, the effect is the same---many voters will knee-jerk react to the fear of the tax increase measure because of the wording. That is nothing to celebrate.

Despite all the talk and the posturing by the pundits and the ad men, the voters will decide on Nov. 4th. In the battle against People's Utility Districts, PGE has a pretty good losing record. I'm betting that record will continue with a big win for the PUD in Mult. Co. Let the celebrations begin!

Power to the People!

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