Legislators urge I-5 bridge vote; county leaders skeptical

County skeptical of request from 17th District lawmakers

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

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Legislators back I-5 bridge vote

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Short on specifics — and just plain short — Vancouver’s three 17th District state legislators have followed through on their pledge to urge Clark County commissioners to hold an advisory vote on the Columbia River Crossing project.

To which, one skeptical commissioner has quickly responded: You leave us out of this.

Issued late Wednesday afternoon, the letter signed by Republican Reps. Don Benton and Paul Harris and Democratic Rep. Tim Probst, all of Vancouver, reads, in its entirety:

“Dear Clark County Commissioners,

“We are writing to urge you to put the Columbia River Crossing project to a vote of the people. The CRC is a crucial issue that will have significant impact on the citizens. Each citizen should have the opportunity to consider both the costs and the benefits, and take a vote.

“We strongly urge you to give the citizens of Clark County a voice. Please contact us if you have questions.”

Problem is, said county Commissioner Tom Mielke, it’s not the county’s choice to make.

Last year, commissioners were told by Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Bronson Potter that they could not have an advisory vote on a matter over which they lack the authority to decide.

Potter said there’s no state law or case law addressing the subject of advisory elections. He said there are two attorney general opinions.

He wrote to commissioners last year: “One opinion provides that county commissioners may submit to the voters, in an advisory election, the question of whether or not they should adopt a county ordinance. Doing so is considered to be part of their implied authority in seeking public comment on an issue that the board has authority to decide. On the other hand, the second opinion provides that a county auditor did not have authority to conduct an advisory election or popularity poll of ten presidential candidates. These opinions are consistent with the advice of the prosecuting attorney’s office that the (Board of County Commissioners) may seek advisory elections to obtain constituent input on matters that the BOCC has the authority to decide.”

Asked a day earlier about the impending correspondence from the legislators, Mielke said the county could be sued if it staged an advisory vote.

“We don’t need to go look for fights. We have enough on our own,” Mielke said at the end of the commissioners’ weekly meeting.

A longtime advocate for a public vote, Mielke said commissioners would consider the request if the 17th District lawmakers got an opinion from the state Attorney General’s office that it was OK to hold such a vote.

The legal uncertainty is based on the fact that decisions on whether the Interstate 5 replacement bridge is built, whether tolls are charged and whether light rail is part of the project are not within control of the county board.

So, what about that, legislators?

“I think where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Probst said late Wednesday, brushing aside worry of legalities.

Probst said the county did express to him concern over holding a “duplicative” advisory vote on light rail, because a binding vote is expected in November 2012. But the public’s right to weigh in should hold sway, he said.

Probst said he made it clear he would sign onto only a call for a single, up-or-down advisory vote on the entire project and all aspects.

“That vote would send a clear signal to elected officials that would either kill or endorse the whole project,” he said.

As for the letter’s brevity, he said Benton and Harris sought to list the project’s perceived warts, with no mention of its positives. He would have gone with a more thorough, balanced version, he said.

“I had anticipated a much meatier, more meaningful letter,” Probst said. “I wasn’t going to agree to a letter that was one-sided and mentioned only the downsides, without any of the upside.”

In drafting the letter, the legislative trio responded to pleas from participants in a 17th District town hall meeting held Saturday in Vancouver to press for a countywide vote.

Oregon poll results

Meanwhile, results of a new opinion poll commissioned by the Portland Business Alliance and Portland General Electric on the economy in the Portland-Salem metropolitan area were revealed on Wednesday.

One of 53 questions asked on Feb. 4-7 centered on the CRC project, and found strong support.

The poll of 600 registered voters in four Oregon counties, conducted by DHM Research, asked for response to a proposed “replacement highway and transit bridge across the Columbia River.” It found that 34 percent “strongly favor” and 33 percent “somewhat favor” the project, versus 10 percent who “strongly oppose” and 15 percent who “somewhat oppose” it.

“In political terms, 67 percent support is a strong demonstration of consensus in the region,” said Brian Gard, CRC Coalition executive director. He stressed the “more than 3-to-1 ratio” of “strong” opinion that leaned toward construction.

Stephanie Rice contributed to this story.