Douglas County commissioners cannot be limited to two four-year terms, the Oregon State Court of Appeals has ruled.
The May 16 ruling affirms a 2016 ruling by the Douglas County Circuit Court, which found term limits unconstitutional.
Voters had approved a two-term limit in 2014. It was very popular, garnering 69.5 percent support. John Parker, Jr., who brought the appeal, said Wednesday the appellate court ruling is a “tough hit,” but he may appeal the decision to the Oregon Supreme Court.
“I think it’s wrong. The people spoke, they spoke loudly, and they spoke not just loudly, but on a high voter turnout,” Parker said. The turnout for that election, which was a November general election, was 71 percent.
Former county commissioner Susan Morgan was the first to be impacted by the limit. It was she who originally brought the lawsuit against term limits in 2015, as she was nearing the end of her second four-year term, and hoped to run for re-election in 2016.
Morgan could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Morgan argued in her lawsuit that the limit was unconstitutional because the Oregon Constitution only requires that county commissioners be electors of the county.
In a December 2015 ruling, Circuit Judge Richard Barron agreed with Morgan, and issued a writ of mandamus forcing County Clerk Patricia Hitt, the defendant in the case, to place Morgan’s name on the ballot.
Morgan later faced a failed recall attempt, and then chose to drop out of the race. She went on to take a position with the Association of Oregon Counties, and Gary Leif was elected to fill her commissioner seat. Leif recently vacated that seat and now holds the state House District 2 seat that Morgan held before she became a county commissioner.
All of which means the question, at least as it concerned Morgan, is moot. The appeals court mentioned that, but said it would render a decision anyway, because it was a matter involving the public interest, and the problem was likely to come up again.
The appeals court’s opinion, authored by Presiding Judge Rex Armstrong, said a provision in Article VI, section 8, of the state constitution governs the qualifications for every county officer, including commissioners.
That section says the county’s elected officials must be electors of the county. It then goes on to indicate some added qualifications can be made specifically for county assessor, sheriff, coroner and surveyor. Armstrong said that means counties don’t have the power to add qualifications, including term limits, for positions other than those four.
“For all other county officers, including county commissioner, the sole qualification remains that the officer be an elector of the county,” Armstrong wrote.
All of which boils down to the fact that Morgan could have run again in 2016, and that current Commissioners Chris Boice and Tim Freeman, both of whom were just elected to a second term, could run again in four years.
Parker had intervened on Hitt’s side in the original case and took the case to the appeals court. He had been the chief petitioner for the term limit ballot measure.
Parker said Wednesday he believes the county commissioners would be more closely representative of the people of Douglas County if term limits forced more frequent turnover in the positions.
“I think the majority of them would end up being more statesmanlike than political hacks,” Parker said.
He said the commissioners have often made decisions based on the will of the voters, citing the example of their decision to refer rural marijuana businesses to the voters. After voters said no to recreational retail sales and pot farms in unincorporated parts of the county in 2016, commissioners banned them.
“I don’t want to turn this around and make this about the pot sales, but the commissioners as a government body, they used that vote as a reason to be strongly opposed to it. But when it comes to term limits, those same commissioners feel that the people got it wrong,” he said.
Neither of the current commissioners was a party to the lawsuit.
Parker said the decision will also impact Yamhill County, where the county commissioners referred term limits to the voters. Voters there approved a three-term limit for county officials in 1996.