Of the nineteen people who called in during the October 20 public hearing and second reading of Ordinance 2021-002, giving code enforcers the power to cite and fine property owners with unpermitted structures, twelve supported the ordinance, some identifying as Republicans, while seven, mostly Republicans, were against the change. During Wednesday’s Zoom hearing, Josephine County Commissioners heard the horrors of living near illegal cannabis grows as well as the perceived horrors of government infringement upon property rights, argued among themselves, then to get ahead of Sen. Art Robinson’s threat to petition to get code enforcement on the ballot, approved the ordinance with the intent to put in on the November 2022 ballot.
Although everyone stated their names for the record it wasn’t always clear on their calls into Zoom who they were. Commissioner Herman Baertschiger asked them to give their address but those in favor of the ordinance declined, fearing retribution. Those in favor of the ordinance testified to being chased by pit bulls on their way to the mailbox, of those dogs being abandoned to fend for themselves after harvest, of bullets whizzing by their head while workers next door were shooting guns, of being chased in their vehicle by a water truck after taking a picture of it rumbling over a destroyed bridge, of living next door to hazardous wastes, garbage, human feces and chemicals polluting Graves Creek, of piles of old appliances and rusting RVs strewn among the trees, of unattended black plastic fencing blowing around, of having their wells reduced to a trickle so their yards dried up and feeling captured living on property they can’t sell because of the situation around them. They told of incidents where they were threatened with knives after telling a group of workers they couldn’t burn trash in the summer and of being blocked by intimidating men surrounding their car as they tried to get home. They said calling the sheriff got the usual message…”no one is available right now.” One speaker said more of her neighbors wanted to call in during the public hearing but were afraid of retaliation. Another spoke of filing complaints about illegal use of creek water and having nothing done about it. A woman told commissioners several of her Sunny Valley neighbors have moved out fearing for their safety. She said she worried they were selling to more illegal growers. Others told of having to ration water for household use because of illegal well irrigation nearby lowering the water table. Increased car wrecks on country roads, harassment while driving, illegal encampments with no sanitation…..” we’re pissed off one woman said. Another said illegal grows in the county “are out of control.” They all pleaded with commissioners to “do something.”
Meanwhile, state Sen. Art Robinson called in, repeating his remarks during last week’s public hearing…that the ordinance is unconstitutional, people have a right to do whatever they please on their property, it does nothing to provide more resources for the sheriff, and is a trojan horse of the socialists here trying to curtail property rights. He again threatened to take the matter to the voters by unleashing his supporters to go out and collect signatures to get the ordinance on the ballot. Robinson’s concerns were echoed by those calling in to oppose code enforcement. They said it was a power grab, most agreed that more resources should be allocated to the sheriff to deal with illegal grows and failure to enforce is the real problem. Some commenters said the power to cite and impose fines on unpermitted structures could be misused if tyrants get elected to the board, that illegal growers will just laugh at citations and fines and that county Planning Department staff is too stretched out to properly handle their new citing power. Republican Party Chair Holli Morton, who said she lives in Colonial Valley, opposed the ordinance, saying what’s proposed won’t solve the problem. She said she feared untrained public servants going out to deliver a citation will be met by armed cartels and asked if there is any money budgeted to fund the new law. She and others suggested the county call in the National Guard to help with raiding illegal grows and look at what kind of help the county could get from “outside” but didn’t say what “outside” meant. (Note: The National Guard has been deployed to help with illegal grows but they are not permitted to carry weapons or participate in raids, only to help tear down structures and clean up).
Those favoring the ordinance who spoke after Robinson and Morton pointed out that we already have laws that restrict what you can do on your property, like have a meth lab, and asked commissioners not to be derailed by the “cliché of property rights.” They conceded code enforcement may not solve the illegal grow problem but it does give the county another tool to fight it.
When the public hearing was closed, commissioners took a deep breath and argued among themselves, with Commission Chair Dan DeYoung clearly frustrated with the organized effort against the ordinance while Baertschiger, who had supported the ordinance during its development, turned on him.
During Tuesday’s Legal Update, County Counsel Wally Hicks found a way to put the sunset clause that Baertschiger said he wouldn’t support the ordinance without, into the ordinance. Hicks inserted language that said in three years the changes made would expire and the ordinance would revert to the original unless the board went through the process again of holding public hearings and approving it.
Commissioner Darin Fowler, on Tuesday, said he hoped the sunset clause would bring some comfort to those folks who think they were “weaponizing” the county code. DeYoung said he attended a forum Monday night with Robinson in attendance and indicated it was stressful. He went along with the sunset clause for Baertschiger’s sake but said the board can go back and review the ordinance anytime to see if it’s been effective or caused the kinds of “unintended consequences” Baertschiger said it would. DeYoung was adamant that the ordinance be passed now so it will send a message to illegal growers that they will be cited and fined for putting up unpermitted structures like hoop houses and shacks next season. They approved the changes in the ordinance on Tuesday as well as a provision for “discretionary immunity” in case someone claims to have been harmed by the change in the code. Fowler said that was a good idea since Sen. Robinson will claim the county violated the Constitution.
“He will harp on that till all the strings are gone from his harp,” said Fowler.
Commissioners asked Hicks to put together a presentation telling why the ordinance doesn’t violate the Constitution. Baertschiger said little other than he was looking forward to a lively discussion during the public hearing. On Wednesday, before the public hearing was opened, Hicks did just that, citing some legal opinions on property regulations that mostly related to eminent domain.
During commissioners’ response time after Wednesday’s public hearing, Fowler said he noticed that the majority of the comments were in support of the ordinance, his emails ran overwhelmingly in favor of the ordinance and he wasn’t worried about the Planning Department being able to handle code enforcement. As far as beefing up law enforcement “our citizens told us they don’t want to fully fund our law enforcement” with a 59 cent per $1,000 of assessed value tax rate.
“This isn’t code enforcement gone wild,” he said and added commissioners thought they put in enough protections to deal with people’s concerns.
Commissioners reminded those listening in that the new enforcement will not change any violation status cited before January 1, 2016, it will be complaint driven only, no one will be driving around looking for violations, and that the emphasis will be on voluntary compliance, with the Planning Department working to help those who have been cited to figure out how to comply.
Baertschiger said he understands the problem, there are illegal grows around his ranch, that he’s been out to look at illegal grows and seen the misery they cause and he’s flown over the county and saw how pervasive the problem is. But, he said, he thought this was another “50/50 issue” and believed commissioners should put the ordinance on the ballot.
DeYoung was livid and almost incoherent, talking about a certain political party trying to destroy another party and to him he didn’t care what party anyone belonged to when they came into his office with a problem and he didn’t consider this matter of code enforcement a partisan issue. He said people have told him about bootlegging well drillers coming in with no permits and getting big cash payments for drilling. Others have told him of open burning all year round. He said people are concerned about these growers poisoning the aquifer with illegal chemicals. He said when Josephine County goes to the state or other agencies asking for help they ask what the county has done to help itself. When they see the county has a tax rate of 59 cents and no permit enforcement with any teeth they say go back and try to help yourself first.
“We won’t get attention from the state if we don’t have skin in the game,” he said.
DeYoung said people have called him and said we’re “gonna get recalled” because of this but he feels strongly that something must be done. “Public service is frustrating. I’m asked why in the world did I do this. All three of us have lived here a long time and we won’t give up on the county.”
Hicks called for the vote. All three voted to include the ordinance changes and the discretionary immunity provision. Baertschiger then asked to propose a motion. Hicks said Herman wants the vote to say the ordinance will take effect after the voters approve of it in the next scheduled election, which would be in May. Fowler said he wouldn’t second that but changed his mind to allow discussion. He said May is too soon as the ordinance, which wouldn’t become law for 90 days if approved now, would require the code enforcers to barely “ramp up then get their feet chopped off in May.”
Baertschiger said he felt both parties, those for and those against, should do their campaigning and let the citizens vote on the matter.
DeYoung repeated his contention that these new rules need to be in place before the next growing season or it may be bigger than the last one. He said he has no problem sending the matter to the voters but would like to wait until next November’s election when people will have a better idea about the effectiveness of the ordinance. He said a code enforcement proposal that was shot down in 2013 by Robinson’s effort to get it on the ballot is not the same as the one now, and the county is not the same as it was then.
“I will take issue with anybody who says Josephine County is the same in ’13 as it is today. It’s night and day. I’m well aware of the problem then. Legitimate growers have been warning about this for years. I will consider a motion for November but not for May. By November both sides will have something to go by…if it’s not working this is the reason why, not just because we don’t trust the county commissioners,” he said.
Hicks called for a vote on Baertschiger’s motion. DeYoung and Fowler voted no. Fowler then made a motion to adopt the ordinance with a revisit in a year with a report from the Planning Director on how it’s working and with the understanding it will go to voters in November of 2022. Baertschiger voted no on that. DeYoung and Fowler voted yes. The ordinance will become law in January after a required 90-day waiting period.
DeYoung commented that the ordinance should be given a chance.
“We’ve got one camp that’s fed up while others are worried about a problem that might happen,” he said.
After the ordinance vote DeYoung opened Public Comments. The usual anti-vaxxers didn’t show up. The three-minute comments by two people concerned panhandling on Monument Drive, an observation that COVID risks vs. vaccine risks are such that people should just get vaccinated so we can go back to normal, praise for Baertschiger’s vote against buying a backhoe for the airport and a request that the public should know who wrote the goofy resolution on Liberty put forward a couple of weeks ago.
Commissioners’ responses lasted much longer than three minutes. DeYoung said no one was paying attention to the sign they put up in Merlin that says it’s illegal to pass money from a vehicle to a pedestrian and repeated his claim the governor’s vaccine and mask mandates are not from a legitimate source such as legislators or the courts, expressed worry the airline industry may shut down because less than 40 percent of its employees refuse to be vaccinated and that unvaccinated people are being discriminated against.
Baertschiger basked in the praise for his anti-backhoe vote but Fowler waited for Matters From Commissioners to bash the governor, repeating his allegation that her vaccine mandate is a ploy to get rid of Republicans in Oregon and saying he heard Asante was closing its Urgent Care and Imaging only had half its staff show up because of people who won’t comply with the vaccine mandate. He did not say who told him that or provide any verification of his claims. He said he hoped we don’t have a medical emergency here over a “flu mandate” and remarked that many restaurants don’t serve lunch anymore because they can’t find enough staff.
Baertschiger jumped into the anti-mandate discussion saying he’s deeply disappointed and “scratching my head” because last year hospital staff worked without vaccines and now they’re all being terminated. Again he posed one of his Tucker Carlson questions, this time addressed the Asante CEO…” ….how much money and what resources have been offered by Gov. Brown for mandating vaccines.”
DeYoung said people have been asking him when they are going to start meeting in person again. He said next week he’d like to have Personnel Director JJ Scofield come in and tell them what the current rules for mask-wearing are. Baertschiger has said he won’t come in to meet in person if he has to wear a mask. Again, bringing up the possibility of a recall (he didn’t say by whom) he said people shouldn’t get their information from the Daily Courier, which failed to cover his meeting with state Rep. Lily Morgan and Congressman Cliff Bentz about marijuana or the travesty in Afghanistan.
Other action commissioners took this week:
- Approved contracts to begin the demolition of the old Josephine County Hospital on A Street. The first contracts are with firms that handle hazardous waste abatement.
- Approved buying home COVID test kits at $25 each with ARPA funds to distribute to fire halls, libraries if willing and city halls to give away. DeYoung said he hopes they don’t see them for sale on Facebook. They will buy the kits in 250 count increments to see how well they are used.
- Made appointments to the Cannabis Advisory Panel to fill vacancies.
During Other Matters from Commissioners, they again railed against vaccine mandates with DeYoung complaining about “how divisive this whole mess has become.” He said Oregon used to be the place to come “to live your life free and do more or less what you please within very few rules and regulations and now look at it. Oregon’s one of the worst. The whole west coast is the worst of the worst.” Then he turned around and said, in relation to illegal cannabis, Josephine County is known as the “wild wild west” with no law enforcement and indicated he was told a group of 29 “deputized people” are ready to go out and back up the sheriff but he didn’t say how they were “deputized” or who they were. DeYoung did say just because you are “deputized” doesn’t mean you have the training or practice to even shoot straight.
Fowler complained that if they get back to meeting in Ann Basker Auditorium they will have people come to their meetings who refuse to wear masks and OSHA will cite them. Then he complained about the governor sitting in her “star chamber” and how judges appointed by her have rejected the lawsuits brought by state employees who don’t want to get vaccinated. He said he doesn’t see an end to the mandates and he’s “really sick of my governor.”