A police union proposal that would effectively repeal and replace Portland’s voter-approved police oversight board now has legal approval to proceed with signature collecting for the November ballot.

On Thursday, Circuit Court Judge Katharine von Ter Stegge ruled the Portland Police Association’s (PPA) initiative petition to change the authority, membership, and budget for the city’s new community-led police oversight board can move forward, with a few changes.

The PPA wants to replace the police oversight measure approved by a large margin of voters in 2020 with a new one, written by the union and its lawyers. If the police union can gather enough signatures to get a measure on the November ballot, voters will be asked to consider scrapping the independent police oversight board–which is entirely civilian led and has authority to discipline and fire officers–with a significantly watered down version with far less authority.

The PPA’s ballot initiative was one of two filed with the city elections office in February by William Aitchison, an attorney for the union. The other initiative called for an increase in police officers, detox centers and “street response services” in Portland. Both were met with legal challenges from two different plaintiffs.

A complaint from Leroy Hanes Jr., a local pastor and police reform coalition leader, asserted the PPA’s oversight board measure used vague and misleading language in its title and description.

The PPA’s measure couches the proposed charter amendment as “changes” to the “authority, membership and budget for [the] community police oversight board.” 

The measure pitched by the PPA is much more than a change to the current oversight board. It’s more akin to a repeal of the one voters approved by a large margin in 2020.

In his legal challenge, Haynes argued the PPA’s initiative “[guts] the oversight and disciplinary powers of the current Community Police Oversight Board (“Board”), repealing the Board’s independence…”

Haynes’s complaint notes the police are also proposing to eliminate a 5 percent budget allocation for the oversight board and change the membership rules to allow law enforcement to serve on the board–a stipulation explicitly prohibited in the city’s current iteration. The proposed ballot title didn’t use the word "repeal" but that’s effectively what’s being pitched to voters. 

“Adding insult to injury, the north star of the Community Police Oversight Board – its independence – stands to be fully repealed yet neither the Caption or Question mention this extraordinary aspect of the Initiative, and the Summary buries this effect at the end,” Haynes and his attorney noted.

In her ruling on Haynes’s complaint, von Ter Stegge agreed in-part with Haynes and his attorney. 

The judge posited that while the ballot title for the PPA’s measure was “factual, neutral, and drafted in good faith,” she agreed “it does not sufficiently capture the major effects of the measure.” She came up with an alternate title and caption the PPA must use if it moves forward.

Portland’s civilian-led oversight board is considered one of the strongest in the nation because of its independence from the police bureau and its authority to discipline and fire officers.

The PPA’s objections to the 2020 measure have been known for years. The union filed a grievance over the police oversight board just days after it was passed by voters. Nevertheless, the city got legal assurances to continue, and convened a Police Accountability Commission to decide the specifics of how the new civilian-led board would operate.

A Portland city staffer (left) and members of Portland's Police Accountability Commission address Portland City Council in 2023. The commission was appointed to design an implementation plan for a voter-approved police oversight board. courtney vaughn

The Portland City Council approved the commission’s recommendations last year, but the police union hasn’t yet agreed to the terms in a labor contract bargaining session, so the board has yet to be implemented.  

Judge von Ter Stegge noted the chasm between the PPA and plaintiffs who challenged the union’s oversight repeal measure.

“Other than both generally supporting the citizen initiative process [in] Oregon, petitioners have diametrically opposed viewpoints—so much so that at times it sounds like they are not even discussing the same measure,” von Ter Stegge’s opinion states.

This week’s ruling was the second made by von Ter Stegge this month regarding the PPA’s initiative petitions. 

On May 9, the judge ruled on a separate complaint over the union’s proposal to use cannabis and general fund money to bolster Portland police funding, while also paying for more detox centers, and increased “street response services.” That measure was deemed unconstitutional.

In that ruling, von Ter Stegge said the initiative, dubbed PDX24OL-02 by the city elections office, violates the Oregon Constitution “because it is administrative, not legislative, in nature.” The measure tried to assign staffing decisions to the city council, but those decisions are supposed to be made by the police chief in an administrative and executive capacity.

Jacqueline Yerby, the plaintiff who challenged the police staffing and services measure, said its reference to “street response services” was misleading.

“Despite this clear focus on expansion of police power and presence, the Initiative’s ballot title tells voters that one of the Initiative’s major effects will be to increase ‘street response services.’ This is not accurate,” Yerby wrote in a legal filing, noting that in Portland, the term “street response” carries a specific connotation that excludes police.

It’s unclear whether the PPA will press on with plans to try to get either of its measures on November's general election ballot. The union would need to collect 40,750 signatures before a July 5 deadline. 

Aitchison, the police union attorney who filed the measures, deferred to the PPA when reached for comment. The union did not respond to a request for comment.