Weston: A town in turmoil

In the middle of its seventh recall election in 15 years, Weston shows the dark side of Oregon's broad laws governing recalls

Generic recall signs are posted on a Water Street lot in Weston. Mayor Duane Thul faces a recall vote on Tuesday, his second since 2011.

Generic recall signs are posted on a Water Street lot in Weston. Mayor Duane Thul faces a recall vote on Tuesday, his second since 2011. Photo by Rachel Alexander.

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WESTON — Driving into Weston off of Oregon Highway 204, the first thing you see are the signs.

“Vote No on Recall: Help Weston Prosper” reads one at the corner of the first house on Water Street.

Several blocks later are the yellow rectangles that simply say, “Recall.”

Statewide recalls: An interactive

For an interactive map that will let you surf through Oregon recall elections since 1990 — there have been at least 87 — click here.

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A generic recall sign is posted at Weston home on Water Street. Mayor Duane Thul faces a recall vote on Tuesday, his second since 2011.

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From left, Weston City Council members Jennifer Spurgeon, Lyn Delph, Bill Boyd and Julie Schuld conduct business at a meeting last week. The empty chair is Mayor Duane Thul’s. He recused himself from the meeting because it dealt with whether to issue a kennel permit for his son.

The signs are generic, lacking the name of Mayor Duane Thul, whose fate will be decided in a recall election Tuesday. The election will be his second in three years; the first attempt to recall him was defeated with 72 percent of citizens voting in December 2011 to keep him in office.

Nonspecific as these recall signs are, they speak to a larger turmoil in Weston, and reflect Oregon laws that require little from people who want to recall an elected official.

Since 1997, this city of 700 has sent a total of nine mayors and City Council members through seven recall elections, successfully removing three of them from office. But with that kind of political instability, many residents say it’s hard for the city to attract new businesses, get grant money or do much of anything to grow.

In this context, a recall campaign isn’t just about the mayor or the job he’s doing. Some of Thul’s supporters freely admit they don’t follow city politics, but say they’re simply sick of seeing the town go through recall elections

Others who are involved in the recall worry about the town’s future, saying they’d like to see an end to the turmoil but that they’ve been ignored when they’ve tried to address issues in Council meetings.

Among their complaints, recall group members have an overarching concern about Thul’s treatment of dissent.

Wesley Rachor, the chief petitioner for the recall, got involved because of a dispute over a Rachor family horse that Thul said violates a city ordinance. Rachor has been to two Council meetings, where he said he’s seen the mayor cut off public comments or refuse to call on people who he knows don’t approve of the job he’s doing.

Peggy Tarwater, another recall supporter, said Thul personally came to her house to enforce a city ordinance about maintaining sight lines to stop signs on a weekend morning. She said she felt the visit was inappropriate, and that he’s singled her out by trying to force her to modify her fence.

Other recall supporters say Thul won’t call on them for public comment in Council meetings, and won’t talk to them if they approach him on the street. They accuse him of being rude, belligerent and disrespectful toward people who disagree with him, and of not listening to citizen concerns about city spending.

Many say the mayor’s supporters rarely come to Council meetings and therefore haven’t seen Thul’s true colors.

“We’re trying to set a precedent that bullies don’t win,” said Tarwater.

Many Thul supporters say the mayor can be gruff, abrupt and sometimes rude to people. But they wonder how else he’s supposed to do his job.

“If he were a nice, polite kind of guy that you would picture, nothing would get done. The people would eat him alive,” said Greg Phillips, who ran a committee opposing the 2011 recall attempt.

Thul said it’s hard for him to work with people in good faith when his position in office in constantly threatened. Most recall supporters, he said, are people with personal agendas or vendettas against him.

“I can work with people, but it takes two. You can’t have people coming up with recalls and stabbing you in the back and expect to get along with them the next day,” he said.

To illustrate his point, he pulled a letter from his folder of recall-related papers. The envelope, postmarked in March of 2013 bore no return address, and the single sheet of paper inside had no signature. In red capital letters, the paper read, “RECALL COMING JULY 1 AND EVERY THREE MONTHS THERE AFTER UNTIL YOU ARE GONE.”

Oregon recalls easy to do

Weston may be especially tumultuous, but recall attempts are fairly common in Oregon, where state law makes it relatively easy to force an election.

Under Oregon law, a petition for recall must be signed by at least 15 percent of people in the elected official’s district who voted in the last election for governor. In small towns like Weston, which has just over 300 registered voters, the threshold for forcing a recall election is small, generally requiring fewer than 40 signatures.

In addition, while Oregon law requires petitioners to state the reasons for a recall, the state constitution and laws governing elections do not list any restrictions on acceptable grounds for a recall. Making false statements on a recall petition can be punished by the Secretary of State if a complaint is made, but there is no other review of claims against elected officials.

A Union-Bulletin investigation of county election records and news articles found 87 recall elections that have taken place in Oregon since 1990. Forty occurred in 2009 or later.

The majority of these elections occurred in areas with fewer than 2,000 registered voters, and 43 failed to remove any of the targeted public officials.

In contrast, Washington state law specifies that a recall may be instigated only for “acts of malfeasance or misfeasance while in office,” or for officials who violate their oath of office. A judge is also required to rule on a recall to determine the validity of complaints.

While Washington state has no comprehensive data set of the number of recall elections, the Union-Bulletin found only two recall elections in the state from 2009-2013, both of which were successful.

In Oregon, the district in which a recall takes place must also pay for the cost of an election. Since 1998, recall elections have cost Weston just over $2,000 total, according to data obtained from the Umatilla County Elections Office.

Necessary evil or destructive force?

If anyone is familiar with Weston’s history of recalls, it’s Tim Crampton, the current president of the Chamber of Commerce.

Crampton was elected to City Council in 1993 and later became mayor. He faced three recall elections in 1998, 2001 and 2003, when he was finally voted out of office.

Petitioners contended he singled out citizens who disagreed with him by overcharging them for city services and had “dictatorship tendencies.”

Crampton said life in town was tense when citizens were trying to remove him from office, and he remembered walking the city’s streets second-guessing people. He said state law makes it easy for voters to force a recall election, especially in small towns.

“If I don’t like so-and-so, I can go out and get 15, 20 signatures on that person and I can have a recall. I don’t have to have a real good reason,” he said. “What a recall does, it kind of puts a pall over the city as a whole, and it takes some time to crawl out of that.”

Despite his history with recalls, Crampton said he supports the current effort to recall Thul because he said the mayor isn’t willing to work with citizens who disagree with him.

Crampton is uneasy in his support, though he signed the recall petition. He said his best-case scenario is that the recall vote fails, leaving Thul in office and willing to do a better job of building bridges with the town’s disgruntled citizens.

Two City Council members, Lyn Delph and Julie Schuld, say they also support the recall, though both think the issues with the mayor speak to a larger dysfunction in the city.

Schuld said the mayor used to be better about working through disagreements but stopped responding well to criticism after the 2011 recall election.

“He’s done an awful lot of good for the city. He’s worked physically and mentally hard. But he’s lost his vision,” said Delph.

Both acknowledge that the city is caught in a chicken-and-egg scenario, where intelligent and qualified people are reluctant to seek public office in part because they fear being targeted.

“Anybody with a brain in them is not going to run for public office,” said Delph.

“Not in this town,” said Schuld.

Schuld said many issues facing the city could be resolved by putting better policies in place, including updated handbooks and better training for city employees. Delph agreed, and also said she’d like to see more young people involved in city politics, though it’s hard for people who aren’t retired to find the time for an unpaid position.

While some citizens see this recall as a necessary evil, Thul’s supporters remain convinced that recalls are a destructive force and that elections rarely resolve the hostilities they create.

Michael Dowd, a longtime Weston resident who supports Thul, said the Weston of 50 years ago had 635 people and thriving businesses all over town. Now, the city has just over 700 people, and many of the businesses have closed shop and left town.

He said he wished people were able to sit down and discuss issues face-to-face with each other instead of seeking to recall elected officials at the first sign of trouble.

“If Duane has to change, these people have to change too,” he said. “When you start having turmoil all the time, nobody wants to move here.”

Rachel Alexander can be reached at rachelalexander@wwub.com or 509-526-8363.

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