Some elections put an issue to rest; others keep it alive. I'm betting that last Tuesday's defeat of Marion County's Measure 24-292, a citizen initiative to reform county government, will turn out to be a great example of how a loss will turn into victory.
Today's opinion piece by Dick Hughes, editorial page editor
of the Salem Statesman Journal, points to a reason why. In "These
Oregon candidates should be honored -- or ashamed" he gave out a Worst
Download Statesman Journal Worst Campaign award
The anti-Measure 24-292 "Protect Public Safety" misinformation.
The Marion County charter amendment had nothing to do with law enforcement. Rather, the measure deserved defeat for other reasons. Voters obliged overwhelmingly.
I wonder whether the inane opposition signs and fliers actually created sympathy for the proponents, possibly helping their cause. Maybe this would be a good research project for a social-science class.
Hughes gets it mostly right.
The main opponents of the Measure (Salem Chamber of Commerce and the current county commissioners) resorted to exceedingly sleazy tactics and outright lies rather than debating the merits of the charter change straightforwardly.
As I said in one of my posts about Measure 24-292, this "misinformation" (Hughes chose a bland word for "lies") is a gift that will keep on giving for what I hope will be an ongoing effort to bring increased openness and accountability to county government.
Whether it passes or fails, a Marion County citizen initiative which got on the May ballot after almost 6,000 citizens signed petitions to improve county government, has served one important purpose:
We've learned how far the existing power structure in Marion County is willing to stretch ethical bounds in order to keep the political system running along in its dysfunctional special-interest-favoring way.
you want to know the ethics-stretching details, check out:
"Marion County District Attorney Walt Beglau skates on
thin ethical ice"
"Chuck Adams likely behind deceptive Measure 24-292 letter"
"GOP flack Chuck Adams sleazes up Marion County charter change campaign"
"Taxes and Marion County charter change: no worries"
"Marion County charter change: desperation breeds deception"
"Facts and fictions about Marion County charter change"
"Marion County commissioner plays the 'you lie' card."
This is why Hughes also got it wrong.
Voters in Marion County didn't get an honest debate on the charter change initiative. They weren't approving of either the performance of the three current Republican commissioners (as Commissioner Patti Milne tried to spin things after the election) or the structure of county government.
Since the special-interest backed opponents of the Measure were able to outspend the proponents 3-1, and outsleazed them by about 100-1, voters were "treated" to deceptive campaign literature, lawn signs, and letters to the editor that claimed the Measure would slash the Sheriff's Department, raise taxes, and generally ruin the world as we know it.
None of which was true.
Key elements of the Measure were to increase the number of commissioners from three to five, elect them on a non-partisan basis by district (rather than countywide), and eliminate the elected county treasurer, transferring those duties to professional staff.
It's virtually certain that Hughes is dead wrong when he implies that the No on 24-292 falsehoods generated quite a few "yes" votes for the Measure.
The reverse is much more likely: people were taken in by the lies and thought they were voting to protect public safety and head off higher taxes -- which as Hughes correctly said had nothing to do with the Measure.
A lot of anger over the opponent's lies will live on for a long time. Channeled properly, this will energize efforts to pass a reincarnated Marion County charter change.
Here's a possible path:
(1) Election law violation complaints need to be filed against Walt Beglau, Marion County District Attorney, and the Salem Chamber of Commerce political action committee that generated false material statements in mailings to voters.
campaigns have to be waged to unseat two of the three current
commissioners: Patti Milne and Sam Brentano. Jason
Freilinger has an excellent chance of defeating Milne this November.
That will be half the battle. Maybe more, in regards to a charter
change, because the third commissioner, Janet Carlson, is considerably
more open-minded, non-dogmatic, and rational than the other two. She
might reconsider her opposition to Measure 24-292.
(3) Once two commissioners who favor improving county government
through a home rule charter are on the Board, another Measure can be
drafted and put to a vote of the people under authority granted under
state law to a county Board of Commissioners.
Under this scenario, a home rule charter proposal similar (if not identical) to Measure 24-292 will have a much greater chance of being approved by Marion County voters. Since the Board of Commissioners will be behind it, as I believe occurred in Clackamas County, supporters of the Measure will have a much more visible platform from which the proposal can be explained.
And opponents won't be able to engage with impunity in the same sorts
of falsehoods as they did this time.
The Statesman Journal did a poor job of communicating accurate facts about the Measure to their readers. Chamber of Commerce lies weren't challenged or analyzed. When county government is supporting the charter change, it will be a lot more difficult for a sleazy political action committee to spread untruths without much of a challenge.
I'm enthused about this approach to passing a home rule charter akin to Measure 24-292. Since the Measure was defeated this week, Marion County will continue to have just three commissioners. Two people form a majority that can draft a charter change and submit it to voters.
In the course of debating the Measure, Patti Milne and Sam Brentano were fond of saying, "If people don't like how county government is being managed, they can vote us out."
Thanks for the suggestion, Patti and Sam. There's an excellent chance
voters are going to take you up on the offer.