[UPDATED] Local law at center of fire legal battle could be repealed

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KEIZERTIMES/File Photo

By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes

UPDATE: Judge Vance Day granted summary motion in favor of MCFD, which asserted the city didn’t have the authority to allow Keizer Fire District to annex MCFD’s territory within the city limits pending an election. Final orders are still forthcoming.

The local ordinance passed by the Keizer City Council allowing the Keizer Fire District to annex the Clear Lake neighborhood is up for repeal at Monday’s council meeting.

But that doesn’t mean that the lawsuit filed by Marion County Fire District No. 1, which currently serves Clear Lake, is going away. The election failed to pass muster with voters in March, and shortly afterwards its attorney sent a letter to the city of Keizer with a proposed settlement: Repeal the ordinance by April 3 and the court case goes away. The lawsuit asks the court to find the ordinance invalid.

“The frustrating thing is in April [MCFD’s attorney said] if [the city of Keizer] didn’t repeal sooner that both sides were going to be faced with completely unnecessary legal fees,” said MCFD Chief J. Kevin Henson. “Nevertheless, they chose to wait.”

Mayor Lore Christopher said the council has essentially been uninvolved since the election as attorneys have worked towards a resolution.

“I think [City Attorney Shannon Johnson is] still working with Marion County to get their agreement that if we repeal they’ll drop everything,” Christopher said.

Johnson declined comment for this story.

MCFD staff feared that, without the ordinance disappearing from the books via repeal, that the city and KFD could seek another annexation election, which KFD board members and staff consistently said would not be the case. Henson said subsequent delays have cost his agency an additional $30,000 or so in legal fees.

An April 30 letter from KFD Board President Joe Van Meter says the matter is moot due to the election results.

“Accordingly we request that the city modify the ordinance to reflect the dates and that the vote is over, and the ordinance is therefore moot,” the letter reads.

The city is bound to consult with Keizer Fire on these matters as part of an intergovernmental agreement between the two agencies. Keizer Fire agreed to pay all the city’s related legal and election costs, but it came with strings attached: Namely, a passage that reads that the payment agreement is “contingent upon the city consulting with Keizer Fire’s legal counsel … i.e. the city will not engage in a process that is opposed by Keizer Fire.”

Henson said his agency wants a definitive answer to the legal question.

“At this point we’ve gone far enough in the process that we feel like we have an obligation to get an opinion from the judge so we know this can never happen again, in spite of the fact the voters have spoken,” Henson said.

Van Meter said the timeline for repeal is the city’s, not that of Keizer Fire.

“We don’t have anything to do with that,” Van Meter said. “That was the city council’s decision.”

The process used to propose annexation has been characterized by both sides as a new interpretation on existing law – they just disagreed on its legality. One of the laws used by KFD and the City of Keizer is for a situation in which a city intends to provide service: For example, no one has questioned that the city could legally take territory from MCFD, or for that matter KFD, and provide service with its own fire department. Despite the similar names, Keizer Fire District is its own governmental agency independent of the city.

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