The Tualatin City Council has moved forward with plans to place a measure aimed at expanding the city’s term limits for elected officials on the ballot for the May 17, 2022, special election.
The council is split on the issue, with Councilors Cyndi Hillier and Nancy Grimes arguing that the issue of term limits should only go before voters after a successfully petition gathers enough signatures from registered voters. Other councilors, however, feel that the health risks posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen a record number of cases and hospitalizations in Oregon this past month, mean that the type of door-to-door signature gathering effort typically carried out by petitioners is a non-starter.
“Due to COVID, a lot of people are saying ‘We don’t want folks going door to door,’” Mayor Frank Bubenik said. “A lot of folks have said to me ‘COVID is done,’ But we’re all seeing the resurgence of it, and my concern, to be honest, is the health and welfare of the signature gatherers. That’s why I’m in favor of referring it to the ballot. Ultimately, either way, if we refer it or if it’s done by citizen initiative, it ends up on the ballot for voters to decide.”
Ultimately, councilors voted 5-2 to refer the measure to the May 2022 ballot.
The measure was presented to the city council by local residents in July. If approved by voters, it would loosen existing term limits to allow anyone elected to the mayoral position to serve two consecutive terms, even if that means they would serve more than the 12 consecutive years in public office allowed under current rules.
The issue has already generated substantial public interest, in large part because many Tualatin residents clearly remember the widespread popularity of the original term limits referendum approved by a two-to-one margin in 2016. That measure restricted elected officials to just three terms in office during any 20 year period and put an end to the reign of former Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden, who served for 24 consecutive years.
Now, some of the same citizens behind that original measure are seeking to revise that policy to allow a person to serve two four-year terms on the city council followed by a second pair of four-year terms as mayor. The policy would apply only to the mayor position. A person serving only as a council member would still be limited to three four-year terms in any 20 year period.
Much of the controversy over the proposal stems from the council placing such a measure on the ballot on its own authority. Tualatin City Charter, the city’s governing document, is clear about this; TMC 1-24-020 allows the council to place ballot measures before voters by a simple majority vote.
At the same time, the city charter also allows citizen petitioners to place a referendum on the ballot if “not less than 15 percent” of eligible voters sign the petition.
The Charter was also amended last October by the council to allow citizen initiatives to be placed on the next primary or general election, where, under a 2015 ordinance, measures referred to the ballot by citizen petition were only allowed at general elections.
Grimes said it would best serve the council to only refer the measure to voters at the behest of a citizen petition.
“I’m afraid of I’m not in favor of us referring this to the ballot, due to the nature of it and the fact it amends something that will affect all of us at some point,” she said. “I feel the best way for that to happen – the way that feels the best – is for it to come from a citizen initiative.”
Currently, a new group called Tualatin Voices United is seeking electronic signatures for an online petition that demands that the city council only refer a term limits measure to the ballot following a citizen petition and signature gathering process. Such a demand would not be legally binding, but supporters say it could sway public opinion on the matter.
There are also limited legal options for disgruntled residents.
Any registered voter with a Tualatin address who is dissatisfied with the title of a term limits measure referred to the ballot by councilors could also challenge that title in Washington County Circuit Court.
According to Tualatin City Attorney Sean Brady, this must be done within seven days of the council referring a measure to voters. They must provide notice to the city and state specific reasons why the title should be legally rejected.
“The court can review it and have a choice after conducting that review to certify that title or a different one,” Brady told councilors at their Aug. 9 meeting. The Circuit Court review is final. There is no appeal.”