Recall Effort in King City Takes Bizarre Turn(s)

The city manager and state elections officials are at odds over the accuracy of petitions to recall six city councilors.

Evening sky over Oregon. (Tim Saputo)

A citizen effort to recall six of King City’s seven city councilors has taken some unusual turns.

The recall effort has its roots in a 2018 decision to expand the small Washington County city’s urban growth boundary, adding 528 acres in an area called Kingston Terrace. That required King City to create a master plan and transportation plan for the addition, a public process that concluded earlier this year.

But the new plans dismayed Randall Olsen and Steve Gearhart, King City residents who are the chief petitioner and treasurer, respectively, of recall petitions filed last month against the six city councilors who voted to approved the plans for Kingston Terrace.

Opponents put up a website explaining their position and filed recall petitions against the six councilors. On their website, the recall proponents wrote that the council had voted to expand King City’s boundaries in a way that would increase traffic through neighborhoods and harm the environment, despite “overwhelming public opposition to the planned Fischer Road extension.”

But on Oct. 5, Ronnie Smith, the elections officer for King City, declared the recall petitions invalid, saying they contained factually inaccurate information.

“Contrary to the information in the petitions, the councilors did not vote on the extension of Fisher Road, but instead on land use issues, including the Kingston Terrace Master Plan and King City’s first Transportation System Plan. Decisions regarding these plans were mandated by the state of Oregon, Metro and Washington County,” Michael Weston, the city manager for King City, and city attorney Ed Trompke said in an Oct. 19 statement.

“The petitions also misleadingly refer to a ‘Bankston Nature Preserve.’ In reality, this area is a private easement on private property, subject to private use only, and is not a designated nature preserve.”

The recall committee disputes that its petitions are inaccurate.

“The petition statements were carefully worded to avoid anything that may be construed as a false statement,” the committee said in an emial. “Our objective when writing the petition statement was to present the major areas of concern that were expressed by the community during the planning and approval process of the Transportation System Plan and the Kingston Terrace Master Plan. These concerns remain with those plans as approved by the King City City Council.”

The committee noted that several environmental groups submitted letters of concern to the King City council about the impacts of the expansion. The committee added that if it is determined the initiation petitions contain inaccurate information, it would be willing to refile corrected petitions.

But in the meantime, the secretary of state’s Elections Division took issue with Weston’s attempt to invalidate the petitions, saying in an Oct. 11 letter that he had overstepped his authority.

“The elections official’s statutory role is to administer the recall statutes neutrally, without considering the substantive merit of the reasons for recall,” says Laura Kerns, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade. “It can be understandably difficult for election officials to facilitate a petition that they believe is inaccurate or misguided, but it is the right of voters to determine the merit of a petition.”

“It sets a dangerous precedent for elections officials to edit political speech,” Kerns adds. “The Elections Division’s interpretation is that there is nothing in statute or rule that allows an elections official charged with administering petitions to halt signature gathering because the official believes it contains a falsehood.”

That may not be the last word. On Oct. 19, King City announced plans to see what a judge might think. “Given the gravity of the issue and our firm belief in the integrity of the electoral process, we intend to challenge the secretary of state’s position in court,” Weston and Trompke said then.

“The city’s action was motivated by a commitment to transparency and integrity in our civic processes. It was not an attempt to shield elected officials from public scrutiny,” the two added.

But on the afternoon of Oct. 23, before King City could file an objection to state elections officials’ decision, the Secretary of State’s Office filed suit in Washington County Circuit Court, asking a judge there to uphold the state’s earlier order that King City not invalidate the recall petitions.

Trompke says King City plans to respond with a counterargument.

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