LAST WEEK, state and county officials chucked out 186 full petition sheets filed by the First Things First (FTF) Committee in their effort to repeal the city's publicly funded campaigns.
The reason? Many of the circulators failed to follow the state's rules about how to sign and date the sheets, causing them to be invalidated. Coupled with duplicated signatures and the invalid voter registration status of some of the signers, the snafu was enough to disqualify the petition for the May primary ballot.
Now, accusations are flying that the city gave FTF outdated information that didn't reflect strict changes to the rules that were made within the last two years. The new rules provide explicit guidelines for how circulators should certify their sheets—for instance, if they change the date, they have to fully re-sign next to the correction, not just initial it.
"We were given the 2004 rules instead of the 2006 rules," FTF spokeswoman Ellie Booth said. "We were told to follow the 2004 manual."
But City Elections Officer Susan Francois says the secretary of state's office didn't send her the newest manual until this February—after she turned FTF's petitions over to the county.
"[First Things First] were not informed by me of the rules, because I didn't have the rules to give them," Francois said. "My ignorance is not an excuse, but it's an explanation."
However, the state's policies weren't exactly a secret—they've been in use for years.
"We went through this with the Nader campaign," Secretary of State spokeswoman Anne Martens said. In 2004, Secretary of State Bill Bradbury threw out thousands of signatures for Ralph Nader based on unwritten, implicit procedures for determining if signatures are valid. The Oregon Supreme Court upheld Bradbury's actions, but the state followed through with a new manual that made those procedures more explicit. Still, Martens argued, none of the actual procedures have changed.
And it appears that other petitioners have been aware of the rules for years. The Taxpayers Association of Oregon (TAO), which mailed out repeal petitions to its mailing list as an in-kind donation to FTF, has pushed many statewide ballot measures. Although he's emphatically opposed to the stricter rules for circulators, TAO Executive Director Jason Williams said he has dealt with the signature/date issue since 2004. In fact, the group received a number of incorrectly dated repeal petitions back from their supporters—TAO responded by mailing the petitions back to supporters with a letter explaining how to fix their error.
Democracy Resources—the signature gathering company used by FTF (to the tune of around $200,000)—has a long history with statewide ballot measures. According to Booth, the company routinely conducts two to three "scrubs" of their sheets to check for errors. Since they missed nearly 200 sheets that were signed and dated incorrectly, it's unclear if they were fully aware of the state's requirements. The company's owner, Ted Blaszak, did not return the Mercury's phone calls by press time.
Booth says First Things First is "pursuing all our options." They've also handed over to the secretary of state the names of people who signed the petition three or more times. Supporters of the repeal claimed that the high number of duplicates was "fishy"—implying that their opponents set out to sabotage the ballot measure. The "evidence" thus far: 21 people (out of 10,000 checked so far) signed more than twice.
However, the repeal of public campaigns—AKA Voter-Owned Elections—still won't be making an appearance on the May ballot, meaning that the handful of public city council candidates will continue to get campaign funds if they make it past the primary election. So far, that list remains at three: Amanda Fritz, Emilie Boyles, and incumbent Commissioner Erik Sten.