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Initiative petition rejections puzzling

Secretary of State Bev Clarno has overstepped her authority in rejecting three initiative petitions seeking to change Oregon’s forestry laws. Sponsors of the petitions have filed suit, and it appears likely the petitions will be reinstated. Whether the changes in forestry practices are wise is beside the point; the initiatives should be allowed to proceed.

Backed by environmental groups, Initiative Petitions 35, 36 and 36 seek to ban aerial pesticide spraying of forest land within 500 feet of water bodies, require notification before other spraying, prohibit clearcuts near forest water bodies and prohibit members of the State Board of Forestry who work in the timber industry from voting on rules that affect their companies.

Article IV, Section 1 of the Oregon Constitution says initiatives “shall embrace one subject only and matters properly connected therewith.” Clarno rejected the three initiatives on that ground, saying they dealt with more than one subject.

The problem is, the Oregon Supreme Court has consistently granted wide latitude to the subject matter of petitions seeking to change state statutes. The courts have applied the rule much more strictly to constitutional amendments. Certainly, all the proposed statutory changes in these petitions concern state forestry rules and are “properly connected” to that overall subject.

Clarno also did not provide a written opinion from the attorney general regarding the petitions’ legality, which has been customary in the past. She said her staff met with an assistant attorney general, but would not say what advice they received, and refused to waive attorney-client privilege to allow the attorney general to discuss the conversation.

All of this seems unnecessarily secretive for a process that is supposed to allow Oregonians to propose changes in state law.

Oregon’s environmental protections are some of the most lenient on the West Coast, thanks to Oregon law, which sets no limits at all on political contributions. According to an analysis by The Oregonian, the timber industry gives more money to winning candidates in Oregon than anywhere else in the country.

Clarno, who is a former legislator, received more than $36,000 in timber industry donations, and her deputy, former state Rep. Richard Vial, received $19,000.

In a statement about rejecting the petitions, her office said the “Oregon Forest Council” manages logging rules, rather than the State Board of Forestry. The Oregon Forest & Industries Council is an industry lobbying group that donates to candidates.

That could be an honest mistake, or an indication of who really calls the shots.