Election underway. Ballots due Tuesday, May 15, 2012.
A new term has entered the political lexicon of Clackamas County: Portland creep.
Those two words, intended to denote density, crime, congestion and tax-happy bureaucracy, appear on two can’t-miss billboards along Interstate 205 near Gladstone. The conservative Oregon Transformation Project’s political action committee paid for the billboards to support a slate of candidates who, if elected, would take majority control of Clackamas County government.
The new phrase also sums up what’s at stake in this year’s race for three seats on the five-member Clackamas County Board of Commissioners: Should the county be a cooperative partner in regional efforts or become more politically independent and fiscally conservative?
Board seats are nonpartisan, though many decisions fall along party lines. Currently, four of the five seats are held by Democrats, causing friction with the county’s burgeoning conservative movement.
This election is in many ways a referendum on whether the county is on the right path. If the Oregon Transformation Project’s slate wins, Clackamas County could reverse course and end support of regional planning and transportation efforts.
All three candidates supported by the Oregon Transformation Project – John Ludlow, Jim Knapp and Tootie Smith – vow to fight the Portland-Milwaukie light rail extension, for example, even though Clackamas County signed contracts approving the project years ago and construction is under way.
The county’s largely conservative, grass-roots movement already chalked up two significant reversals of county policy over the past year.
In May voters resoundingly approved a referendum that reversed the commissioner-approved $5 annual vehicle registration fee intended to help build a new Sellwood Bridge. In November, voters overwhelmingly supported requiring countywide approval for new urban renewal districts in unincorporated parts of the county, a move that effectively kills urban renewal.
Voters face another important decision on the Sept. 18 ballot, where they will decide whether to require countywide voter approval before officials can spend money to finance, design, construct or operate any rail lines in the county.
And in recent months, whispers started circulating among discontented conservatives about withdrawing from Metro and TriMet.
But voters have eight other candidates to choose from, including several who support light rail and pledge a more friendly attitude to regional partnerships in line with current positions. Jim Bernard, the one incumbent not involved in the May election, is the former mayor of Milwaukie and a long-time supporter of light rail.
Paul Savas, a current commissioner running for chairman, would remain on the board even if he fails in his bid to move up, creating the possibility of a reversal from a 4-1 majority favoring Democrats to a 4-1 majority favoring Republicans.
It all makes for the county’s most important and competitive commission races in years, with consequences sure to extend beyond the county lines.