State may weigh in on Keizer’s fire fight

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By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes

The state legislature is likely to review the city of Keizer’s role in Keizer Fire District’s proposed annexation of the Clear Lake neighborhood.

As far as the city of Keizer and Keizer Fire District are concerned, the city has the right to determine who will provide service within its boundaries.

Marion County Fire District No. 1 officials respond that the city’s actions are unprecedented and possibly illegal.

They have a possible ally in state Rep. Brian Clem, whose suburban Salem district includes portions of MCFD’s territory.

“Separate from the specific outcome of this Keizer election, it’s important for the legislature to clarify this can never happen again,” said Clem, a Democrat in the Oregon House of Representatives.

Clem said he disagrees with the method the city is using to withdraw territory from MCFD, then ask voters whether they want to be part of KFD.

“My fear is we will find other fire districts, other parks districts, other sewer districts, saying, ‘let’s pull a Keizer’ and get some city to help us infringe on our neighbor and create a lot of animosity and chaos statewide like we’re seeing between these two fire districts,” Clem said.

Rep. Kim Thatcher, a House Republican who represents Keizer, has not taken a position on the issue. She wasn’t available for comment.

“I think the legislature should stay out of a chartered city’s business, period,” said Mayor Lore Christopher.

While City Manager Chris Eppley didn’t get into the legal specifics, he said generally he supports local jurisdictions making their own choices.

“Generally the basis of the statutes we used (is) that home rule authority provides us the right to initiate this discussion, basically,” Eppley said.

Some elected officials at the city, notably Mayor Lore Christopher, have cited mistrust of MCFD’s leadership as a reason they’re backing the election proposal. Eppley sees the election as the only way for the city to remain neutral.

“The city could either affirm Keizer Fire’s position – we’re going to do this, and we believe you’re the best, and we’re going to pick you, and that process would be throwing out Marion County 1 and just giving it to Keizer Fire,” Eppley said. “(The council) would be making an affirmative decision in favor of Keizer Fire. The other option they have is to say, no, we’re not going to do this, in which case they’re making an affirmative decision in favor of Marion County 1. The only way for them not to make a decision about what governmental entity serves the people of that area is to send it to a vote.”

The laws under which the city has justified withdrawing territory from MCFD are generally used when a city intends to provide service itself: For example, if Keizer had a city-run fire department, no one disputes the city has the right to offer services within its limits. Likewise, there’s nothing MCFD can do when the city of Salem annexes its territory into the city and opts to provide fire service itself.

Supporters of Keizer Fire’s efforts say there’s no provision in the law that states a city has to have a fire department to exercise its home rule authority and decide which districts will provide service in its boundaries.

“We think the city is using the statutes in a way they’ve never been used before,” said Christopher Crean, an attorney representing MCFD, at a Land Use Board of Appeals hearing on Thursday, Dec. 22.

Damien Hall, one of the attorneys for KFD, said that’s a non-starter.

“If you tinker with the factual suggestion, the theory that the city needs to be the service provider kind of frays around the edges,” Hall said at the hearing.

The unusual maneuver has attracted attention from around the state. The Special Districts Association of Oregon has received requests for advice from both fire districts, but its leaders are adamant about staying neutral in a battle between two of its members.

“This is the first time I’ve been aware where one district has basically appealed to a city to take action to help them acquire a service area, (but) that doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” said George Dunkel, who administrates SDAO’s management consulting program. He spent 19 years with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue and retired from the St. Helens-based Columbia River Fire & Rescue.

The question of where the city can use that same authority to take from one fire district and give to another – whether a public vote is required or not – is just one of the legal issues surrounding the highly unusual maneuvers.

Marion County Fire District No. 1 is also suing the city and Keizer Fire District in Marion County Circuit Court. A motion to dismiss filed by KFD will be considered in January.

There’s possibly yet another legal battle over the content of the ballot title itself; MCFD’s board has yet to decide whether to file it.

Crean argues that, depending on the outcome of the various legal proceedings, that a March election may not count.

“The risk the city decided to take last night is that they will win the LUBA appeal,” Crean said. “If it’s remanded or reversed, they will have put something on the ballot that has no legal effect.”

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