by John Quetzalcoatl Murray
Eugene City Council President Claire Syrett will likely step down Oct. 3, after her attorneys indicated Friday they will no longer try to stop her recall election.
Attorneys for the citizens who launched the recall said they hope to dismiss Councilor Syrett’s lawsuit against them under Oregon’s anti-SLAPP law.
SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, and refers to lawsuits that are meant to intimidate citizens who speak out on issues of public interest. By forcing citizens to incur large legal costs, SLAPP lawsuits also discourage citizens from participating in self-governance.
Statements since July—by recall advocates, recall opponents, and observers—suggest that the lawsuit centered on a public issue and that Councilor Syrett’s lawsuit threatened citizens with large legal fees, fines, and jail time.
In delivering the recall petitions, organizer Mark Osterloh said the recall was prompted by Councilor Syrett’s failure to acknowledge requests from over 100 River Road businesses asking her to oppose the MovingAhead transportation project. That project would reserve two vehicle lanes for diesel buses.
She ignored the petitions, denied knowing of any River Road opposition to the project, and voted for MovingAhead over the citizen protests.
Osterloh and others then collected about 2,000 signatures to recall Claire Syrett. Mark said he hoped the council would reconsider its River Road decision.
“When the city government doesn’t listen to you, it’s time to do something drastic. And that’s why we’re doing a recall,” Mark Osterloh explained in July. “What we want you to do is reverse that vote on the EmX bus line and the whole MovingAhead, and let’s go back to square one. Let’s get citizen input. Let’s see what the people want.”
One of Syrett’s supporters and campaign donors may have sought to intimidate citizens during a council session Sept. 12. Councilor Matt Keating used his speaking time to emphasize that the citizens who initiated the recall could face felony convictions, fines up to $125,000, and prison sentences of five years.
One observer, Richard Locke, suggested in his public comments Sept. 12 that the lawsuit had a chilling effect on public participation . “It intimidates citizens from voicing concerns about any issue, really,” he said. “It minimizes the citizens’ contribution to any issues. It disrespects citizens that have a differing opinion than city officials. It alienates the mayor, council and staff from constituents. In other words, what you’re saying is: ‘Shut up or else.’ And that’s the message that you all are giving to the voting constituents of this city.”
If recall advocates can demonstrate that they have a SLAPP claim, those considerations would take precedence over Councilor Syrett’s original complaint.
The burden of proof would also shift to Councilor Syrett to prove that her lawsuit against Eugene citizens was not meant to silence those who disagreed with her over an issue of public interest.
With the recall certification set for Oct. 3, Lane County Circuit Court Judge Erin Fennerty convened both legal teams Sept. 23 to determine whether to schedule an expedited hearing.
Syrett attorneys said that would no longer be necessary, as they will be filing an amended complaint. The primary change, they said, would be to remove the requests to stop elections officials from distributing ballots, counting votes, and certifying the election.
Council President Syrett has previously indicated that she would leave the council after the recall election was certified. Cumulative results posted Sept. 6, 9, and 16 show voters favoring recall by roughly a 60-40 margin, with the latest posted results showing 2,323 votes to recall and 1,593 opposed. Final reports are scheduled Sept. 28 and Oct. 3 at 5 p.m.
The 60-40 margin in the recall election roughly corresponds to the results of a community survey released Sept. 22. About 60 percent of respondents said they have ‘no confidence’ or ‘not much’ confidence in the city council.
In what could be Council President Syrett’s last week, the council is scheduled to discuss a public health overlay zone and a fireworks ban.
After difficult votes on natural gas infrastructure, MovingAhead, and Middle Housing, the fireworks ban is just the latest in a string of controversial votes taken up by the city council this year. Local faith leaders are asking councilors to oppose the fireworks ban. They say fireworks sales help raise funds for many charitable causes, including a local food ministry and youth activities.