By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes
The City of Keizer exceeded its authority by passing an ordinance withdrawing territory from Marion County Fire District No. 1 last year, a Marion County Court judge ruled Friday.
Judge Vance Day granted summary motion in favor of MCFD, which asserted the city didn’t have the authority to allow Keizer Fire District to annex MCFD’s territory within the city limits pending an election. Final orders are still forthcoming.
“What this means is that the controversy is done, not just this time but forever because the judge’s decision is binding on the three parties involved,” said Christopher Crean, an attorney for MCFD, at the Keizer City Council’s Monday night meeting.
The legal statutes used to justify the proposal are generally used when a city opts to provide a certain service itself. For example, said MCFD Chief J. Kevin Henson, there’s little dispute the city could have taken over fire service from MCFD with no legal trouble had the city created its own fire department.
Instead, the city opted to essentially hand control from one district to another – assuming voters approved, which they did not in March’s special election.
“I think the city should have, respectfully, never gotten involved in any of this because the city didn’t provide fire service,” Henson said. “And the fact the city said this was in the best interests of the community … (yet) the community voted and said this was not accurate.”
The Keizer City Council voted Monday night to ask city staff to draw up action that would repeal the ordinance. KFD didn’t oppose the move, according to a letter from Joe Van Meter, president of its board of directors.
At Monday’s meeting, City Councilor Jim Taylor chided MCFD’s board for seeking a 13-cent increase on its levy after testimony last year indicated the district was in good financial shape.
“This was a very painful, painful process for us,” Taylor said. “All we did was what we thought was best for the citizens of Keizer as a whole, asked them to vote on it and they did.”
MCFD had put forth a settlement offer after the election, saying they would halt the lawsuit in exchange for repealing the ordinance before a date in early April.
Henson said it was important to his entity after that point to see the lawsuit through, noting possible dates in the city’s ordinance that could allow for another annexation election.
“The judge’s ruling makes it clear that this cannot happen again, and that was very important for us because the city of Keizer and Keizer Fire, up until the ruling, had taken a different position,” Henson said.
While Randy Franke, president of MCFD’s board, hinted its board would be willing to discuss an agreement that could hold the city harmless from future legal costs directly related to this issue, they declined to enter into a release of claims agreement, City Attorney Shannon Johnson said Monday night.
The legal theory behind the ordinance was conceived by Keizer Fire District’s attorneys, who argued the city had the same rights under its home rule authority even if it didn’t provide service itself. KFD agreed to pay the city’s associated legal expenses that came along with the case. Both fire districts have incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
“I think this was a colossal waste of taxpayer money,” Henson said.
Attorneys from Keizer Fire District did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Crean said all the agencies involved spent close to $750,000 on this fight, adding that most of those expenses could have been avoided. He recalled testimony from 2011 where city leaders were urged to wait.
“We said if you do this it’s going to get ugly, all the parties involved are public agencies, don’t go down that road,” Crean said at Monday’s meeting. “… In retrospect we don’t believe the adverse consequences were given proper consideration by city staff.”