EUGENE, Ore. — Dozens of local activists assailed Lane County’s commissioners, accusing county officials of pulling an initiative to ban aerial herbicide spraying off next May’s election ballot.

The ban is legally entitled to be on the May ballot, according to supporters — an assertion the county disputes.

Nearly 50 people lined up last week to condemn the commissioners and the county legal department in the public comment portion of Tuesday’s board meeting, accusing them of purposely keeping voters from deciding the spray ban’s fate. Many of the speakers were from the groups Community Rights Lane County and Lane County Freedom From Aerial Herbicides Alliance, which in September submitted more than the 11,506 valid signatures needed for the Lane County Clerk’s Office to place the aerial spray ban on the primary ballot in May.

Supporters of the aerial spray ban say they were notified by Lane County Clerk Cheryl Betschart on Oct. 26 that the measure qualified for the May 15 ballot.

But less than 90 minutes later, according to Rob Dickinson, a steering committee member with Community Rights Lane County, county counsel Stephen Dingle wrote them to say the county would not put the measure on the ballot because it didn’t meet what is known as a “separate vote requirement,” which requires a citizen-sponsored initiative that would amend the Lane County charter to cover only a single issue for voters to decide, instead of multiple issues.

“The chief petitioners and the many people who have engaged in our campaign did everything that was expected of them in order to bring this issue before the broader public at an election,” Dickinson said. “And yet here we are after having submitted over 11,500 valid signatures to the county, being blocked from access to the ballot.”

County officials say their hands are tied by a Lane County Circuit Court judge’s ruling earlier this year, which they say requires that the Lane County clerk and county legal staff ensure ballot measures address only a single issue up for a vote.

A summary of the aerial spray ban ballot measure filed with the county outlines rights it would give county residents, including “residents’ right to enforce the rights and prohibitions of the measure against corporations engaging in aerial spraying of herbicides.” Those residents’ enforcement rights are in addition to the ban itself.

Dingle said the county was simply enforcing the judge’s order.

“There’s clearly a misunderstanding on the part of the people” advocating for the aerial spray ban, Dingle told commissioners Tuesday, before the public comment portion of the meeting. “The board (of county commissioners) has absolutely no role in this. This is being conducted (as the result of) a binding order from a Lane County Circuit Court judge.”

Dingle and Betschart, after a review, decided not to place the item on the May ballot, Lane County spokeswoman Devon Ashbridge said Tuesday.

Many Lane County residents, including numerous rural residents, have long been critical of aerial herbicide spraying. Forestland owners often use helicopters to spray herbicides onto new clearcuts to kill brush and let planted Douglas fir seedlings survive. Critics say the toxic sprays can drift onto neighboring properties and contaminate the ground and water.

Many timberland owners say there is no economical and practical alternative to aerial spraying. Critics say manual spraying and other methods can control brush.

The legal issue facing the county stems from a lawsuit filed last year by Eugene attorney Stan Long in response to the county’s previous decision that supporters of the aerial spray ban and two other initiatives could start collecting signatures.

Long sued Dingle and Betschart, arguing that the county failed to determine whether the initiatives contained multiple, and potentially conflicting, changes to the law.

Lane County Circuit Court Judge Karsten Rasmussen dismissed Long’s suit in March, ruling that the county couldn’t make that multiple-issues determination until after signatures were collected and verified, instead of before, as Long asserted.

But the March ruling didn’t address how the county would decide whether the measure contained multiple issues.

Dingle said Tuesday that the multiple-issues determination “was done” by the county, and didn’t elaborate on what criteria the county used. He didn’t respond to a message from The Register-Guard seeking comment.

“It was determined that, according to state law, the aerial spray ban measure as written and circulated did not meet the criteria necessary to be placed on the ballot,” Ashbridge said in an email. “The county clerk and county counsel are responsible for reviewing items in accordance with state law and Judge Rasmussen’s order.”

Dickinson said attorneys working with supporters are appealing the county’s decision not to place the measure on the May ballot, and will argue their case to Rasmussen on Feb. 2.

“In this case, the county just made up these procedures as it went,” Dickinson said. “That is arguably unconstitutional.”

On Tuesday, speakers blasted county legal staff and the commissioners for two hours, criticizing what they called a deliberate effort to keep the aerial spray ban off the ballot. Several speakers felt commissioners were placing the interests of timber companies — which long have opposed restrictions on aerial spraying — above the will of Lane County residents.

“The initiative system is how we the people legislate,” said Michelle Holman, a Community Rights Lane County member. “In good faith, (ban supporters) have complied with every requirement every step of the way. We the people of Lane County expect the same from the county gatekeepers. We demand it. We have the constitutional right to expect that county officials will play by the same rules and not change those rules in the middle of the game.”


Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com