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Washington County Weighs Fee on PUD Initiative

Washington County may charge Oregon Public Power Coalition $10,000 to put a measure on the ballot.
By Laura Gunderson
The Oregonian, December 31, 2003, Metro, pg. 3

It may be illegal to buy an election, but in Washington County, a volunteer group may have to buy its way INTO one.

County elections officials want to charge $10,000 to put an initiative on the May 18 primary election ballot that would create a people's utility district.

County election offices bill government agencies that place tax levies or bond measures on the ballot.

But whether and how much to charge private supporters of any initiative is an issue that other counties have discussed and quickly ditched.

"We're not a public agency," said Dan Meek, a lawyer and member of the Oregon Public Power Coalition, which led the failed drive to create a Multnomah County utility district. "Charging the deposit is unconstitutional and has never been done."

However, Washington County commissioners have the final say. They will discuss the charge - $100 for each affected voting precinct, or a maximum of $10,000 - at their board meeting Tuesday, January 6th.

County officials say the money will pay for election costs, from printing and postage to employee overtime.

Public Power Coalition volunteers, who continue to verify 4,800 signatures they have collected, want Washington County voters to approve a utility district - the same idea that Multnomah County voters rejected in November. If successful, the district would have the power to eventually buy and operate Portland General Electric facilities.

Washington County has never charged residents to place an initiative on the ballot. That's because residents have never tried to place an initiative before, said Jerry Hanson, who oversees county elections as director of Wahsington County's Department of Assessment and Taxation.

"Our general rule is that districts pay their share of the cost of the election," Hansen said.

After each election, officials divide the total cost of the election by the number of votes cast and determine a per-voter cost. Cities, special districts, or schools with measures on the ballot are billed based on voter numbers.

A primary election, such as May's, would likely be cheaper for the utility district, Hanson said. Special elections in which fewer items are on the ballot are usually more expensive.

In Multnomah County, Elections Manager John Kauffman said he didn't bill public power supporters for their November initiative because he didn't know about the state law allowing it.

Kauffman said such a charge would likely be discussed if public power supporters tried again in Multnomah County. He said state law would allow him to ask petitioners for $10,000 in cash or secure bonds.

If the initiative fails, Kauffman said he could pass petitioners a bill for all additional costs; if it passes, the bill would go to the newly formed district.

Kauffman said November's election, which featured the people's utility district initiative and a measure to create an urban renewal district in Gresham, cost about $325,000. Of that, $36,851 was billed to Gresham and $286,295 which he said was the utility district's share, was billed to the county's general fund.

"When you create a special district, somebody must pay for the cost - not just everyone in the county picking up the cost," Kauffman said.

Meek, who questioned the fairness of any charge, maintains that Kauffman and others are misinterpreting state law when they say charges could exceed $10,000.

To make the Washington County ballot, public power supporters need 4,300 signatures - 3 percent of the votes cast in the last governor's election minus those in a section of Forest Grove that has a municipal utility district. State law bars people's utility districts from overlapping.

If public power supporters return their petitions in January as planned, county officials estimate the district's election bill could total as much as $50,000.

The recommendation that commissioners will consider Tuesday asks for a maximum charge of $10,000 but Hanson, after refering to state election laws, said it seemed the ballot measure's organizers could be charged more it if fails.

Elections officials and commissioners in Clackamas and Yamhill counties discussed charging utility district supporters, but both backpedaled.

Yamhill County elections officials planned to require a deposit but decided against collecting it because county commissioners didn't approve the requirement until after supporters had turned in their petitions.

Clackamas County commissioners backed down from a discussion of such a charge after Public Power Coalition members threated a lawsuit.