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State fines dropped over pot initiative comments

The Oregon Secretary of State has dismissed a pair of $75 fines levied against Medford's current and former police chiefs, Tim George and Randy Schoen.

The two were accused of violating state election laws by allegedly advocating in the Mail Tribune against Measure 74, a medical marijuana initiative, in 2010. The state's dismissal of the civil penalties follows an administrative law judge's ruling that the Elections Division failed to meet its burden that the pair's comments violated election law. Measure 74, which would have allowed state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries, failed.

Schoen, who retired as chief in June 2011, and George said Tuesday they are pleased the matter is resolved.

"The bottom line is the administrative law judge did not feel we violated election law," George said.

The pair were notified last August that the Elections Division ruled they'd stepped too far in outlining their perceptions of the negative impacts on police agencies should Measure 74 pass. In the Oct. 4, 2010, Mail Tribune article, Schoen was quoted as saying, "I'm concerned about how it could effect neighborhoods," and "this measure doesn't go far enough to control who can run a dispensary. A convicted felon can run a dispensary." He also said the initiative would be a violation of federal law.

Schoen said Tuesday he was answering questions as the acting chief and also speaking as a representative of the Oregon Chiefs of Police Association.

George was quoted in the article as saying the measure was "rife with problems and the potential for abuse."

"We don't make the rules. We just officiate the results. I hope the voters know what they are voting for," George said in the article. He also stated the measure would add a marijuana supply source and that there would be "more money changing hands."

Williams-based marijuana reform advocate Laird Funk filed complaints against Schoen, George and Medford police Deputy Chief Tim Doney and Oregon State Police Sgt. Erik Fisher the day after they were quoted about Measure 74. Funk claimed they violated state bans on public employees stumping for or against candidates or measures during work hours.

The men responded to the state's allegations in writing. All agreed they were on the job during working hours during their interviews. Doney and Fisher each received warnings from the Elections Division for comments they made in Mail Tribune articles but were not fined.

George and Schoen opted to fight their $75 fines and testified before Senior Administrative Law Judge Ken L. Betterton on April 19 in Salem.

"We went on our own time and on our own dime," said George.

Oregon Revised Statues 260.432(2) states public employees can't promote or oppose political candidates or initiatives while on the job, but the statute "does not restrict the right of a public employee to express personal political views."

The judge ruled the state had not proven that George's statements were made specifically about Measure 74 or that Schoen's comments were made in his capacity as police chief.

In the order, the Secretary of State's Office said it concurred that the Elections Division failed to meet its burden but "declines to adopt the reasoning of the proposed order and elects to dismiss the alleged violation."

Schoen said Tuesday he believes it is important for officers to provide factual information in answer to public questions.

"We gave factual information that was not intended to influence voters," Schoen said. "It would have been a lot easier for both of us to pay the $75. But that wouldn't have been right because we were speaking the truth."

George agreed, saying his comments to the Mail Tribune about impacts on the measure's passage were also truthful, factual and not meant to influence voters.

Asked if he would have preferred to have the state agree with the judge's ruling that they did not violate the elections statute, George said he'd consider the victory a "road win" in sporting parlance.

"All's well that ends well," George said. "It's over."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.