By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes
The outcome of a March election deciding which fire district will service the Clearlake neighborhood could hinge on a bill before the Oregon legislature.
The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee held a public hearing on House Bill 4090 and an amendment that could affect the election, or at least settle future, similar disputes. The underlying bill isn’t closely related, but carries an emergency clause that could make the entire text – and its amendments – effective immediately upon passage.
The committee didn’t vote on the issue, and a date to further consider it has not yet been set.
The Keizer City Council has voted to withdraw the Clearlake area from Marion County Fire District No. 1 pending a March election, which would decide if Keizer Fire District would take over the territory. A court decision in April over the legality of the city’s actions could also affect the election’s ultimate outcome.
The relevant amendment to House Bill 4090 would require that cities provide a particular service before withdrawing an area from a special district. In Keizer’s case, that would mean the city of Keizer would have to have a fire department of its own before withdrawing territory from an independent fire district.
It would also mandate that the area considered for annexation be able to vote independently of an entire district.
For example, most voters in March will see two questions on the ballot: One goes to all City of Keizer voters, while the other to all Keizer Fire District voters. While much of the territory overlaps, a small number of residents outside city limits are still in Keizer Fire District. A majority of both must approve the annexation for it to take effect.
Under the scenario proposed in the amendment, a majority from the Clearlake area must approve annexation along with all voters within the Keizer Fire District.
Rep. Brian Clem, a Democrat representing east Salem, including portions of MCFD’s territory, is proposing the amendment.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Keizer Fire Chief Jeff Cowan said such an outcome would be unacceptable, while MCFD officials were willing to go along.
“We told the Clearlake residents we would abide by their decision,” said Randy Franke, president of MCFD’s board.
Rep. Kim Thatcher, R – Keizer, said she wouldn’t back possible interference with an upcoming election in Keizer.
“Let those things play out,” Thatcher said.
MCFD Chief J. Kevin Henson said the annexation would cost his district more than a half-million dollars annually.
Marion County Commissioner Janet Carlson said the board she sits on has not taken a position, but said there’s better ways to solve similar issues.
Keizer Fire Chief Jeff Cowan said his agency’s decision to pursue Clearlake was precipitated by MCFD’s move to end an ambulance service agreement whereby KFD’s ambulance was a primary medical responder in MCFD’s territory – a shift that cost KFD some $75,000 annually, Cowan has said previously.
The amendment also faces opposition from the League of Oregon Cities , whose legal counsel testified that cities have an intrest in deciding which and how many service district will operate within its boundaries.
The concept of home rule authority was pounded home by Keizer City Attorney Shannon Johnson.
“These amendments are a significant attack on home rule authority throughout the state (and) is contrary to the philosophy of home rule,” he said.
Raeanne McDonald, executive director of Willamette Lutheran Retirement Community, said she saw no reason to disrupt a service model virtually everyone involved agrees isn’t broken.
“I can tell you in my 20 years we’ve had nothing but exemplary service from both districts,” McDonald said. “Why would we want change?”