A Question of Semantics | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

A Question of Semantics

City Council undecided on approach to residency questions

What does it mean to be a resident, and why does it matter? These questions weighed heavily on the campaign for Bend City Council Position 6, with two of the four candidates facing accusations that they were not qualified to run due to inconsistencies in their residency information.

What started as a claim that candidate Casey Roats did not qualify on account of living outside the Bend city limits for most of the year prior to the election, quickly escalated into an interrogation of the residency of opponent Lisa Seales, who previously lived in Florida and co-owns property there.

Though the election has now been decided, it remains to be seen if City Council will be asked to weigh lingering concerns about the winner's qualifications before certifying the local election results at its Dec. 3 meeting. The two local attorneys volleying accusations—Charlie Ringo and Neil Bryant—both told the Source they would wait until after the election to decide what action they may or may not take.

In an effort to sort through fact, fiction and speculation, we spoke with an outside election law expert—Norman Williams, director of the Center for Constitutional Government at Willamette University. Prior to our conversation, Williams had no familiarity with either Roats or Seales.

After reading the Bend City Charter and the media coverage of race, Williams expressed a view that was rarely heard in the lead up to the election—after, of course, disclaiming that he would need more information to reach a truly definitive conclusion.

"I think both of them qualify as residents of Bend," Williams said, adding that if he were advising City Council, he would tell them, "Whoever wins is qualified under that provision."

He explained that he interprets the City Charter as requiring a candidates "domicile"—the place he or she intends to permanently reside­—to be in Bend.

"With each of these candidates, a compelling case can be made that they are domiciled in Bend," Williams said. Still, he pointed out, it's not a clear-cut case.

While arguments have been made about the value of a candidate's intentions—and Oregon state law lays out a variety of means by which to measure something as subjective as intent—some say that it's the letter of the law that matters most. And even Williams noted that despite his broader interpretation of the City Charter, the City is not bound by the State's definitions in this case.

"Bend is entitled to define residency differently than the state or other municipalities may define it," Williams said. And while he feels that the recent debate over qualifications has a "whiff of hyper-technical legality" about it, he added, "There's no controlling case on that point here in Oregon or the U.S. Supreme Court."

But not everyone on City Council agrees about how Bend should define residency. Councilor Jodie Barram, for example, said she would need to do her homework before coming to a precise definition, but believes that state law is a good place to start.

Bend Mayor Jim Clinton, on the other hand, said the State's guidance is largely irrelevant and favors a more local approach.

"What one does in such cases is you look to see what the language is," Clinton explained. "Since the charter is passed by a vote of the people, you'd look to see what most people think those words mean."

To find that common understanding of what it means to "have resided," Clinton said he would turn to the dictionary. Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines "reside" as: "to dwell permanently or continuously: occupy a place as one's legal domicile," and offers as synonyms "abide," "dwell," and "live."

"In this case it's not so much a matter of what the State defines as resident or not resident," he said. "The charter could have said, 'needs to be resident as defined by the state of Oregon,' but that's not what it says."

Clinton added that he finds the common definition to be "quite straightforward" but favors amending the City Charter to make the qualifications unmistakably clear.

"I think the charter should be written clearly enough that you don't have the council deciding who's qualified and who isn't," Clinton said.

Councilor Sally Russell agrees that the charter could be clearer, but declined to make any definitive statements about how she would interpret it.

"It's probably something we should look at more closely," Russell said. "In a way, it's too bad because I think it's a distraction from our community being able to weigh the qualifications of the candidates."

Also in support of revising the charter is Councilor Victor Chudowsky, who said that the document could benefit from more specific language about the residency requirements and perhaps include examples of documents to verify residency, such as tax and voting records.

"I'm still not clear on the issue of residency versus where you live.... I think we could, to prevent this type of thing happening in the future, puts some agreed upon language on residency in the charter," Chudowsky said. "We're in the ridiculous position of having to determine a candidate's qualifications after the election."

But amending the City Charter is no simple task. Any changes to the document's language must be approved in a citywide vote. City Councilor Doug Knight doesn't think it's necessary.

"I think it's fairly clear right now," Knight explained. "'Reside' means unloading the groceries in the front driveway...a place where you can be found."

He added that he considers a residency to be where a person cooks, eats and sleeps—but not where he or she works, unless it is specifically permitted as a live/work unit.

Councilor Scott Ramsay agreed that the current charter language is specific enough, but added that if the council were to open it up for something more significant, he wouldn't be opposed to adding clarity.

"If we open the charter for more problematic issues we can fine tune the language in this issue to further clarify," Ramsay said. "Otherwise, the council has the authority to interpret in cases of question and this is sufficient to resolve any conflict raised."

The seventh councilor, Mark Capell, did not return a request for comment by press time.

If a formal challenge is raised, these are the factors City Council will be weighing.

When questioned, Casey Roats readily admitted that he lived outside the Bend city limits from October 2013 to October 2014, residing in his parents' house between selling his home in Bend and completing construction of a new home in the city limits. During that time, he registered to vote at two locations in the city—his office at Roats Water System and at the under-construction home. He also filed his candidacy paperwork at the latter address, where he now lives.

Council will have to decide if—by maintaining voter registration in Bend (an act that is currently under investigation by the Secretary of State as potentially fraudulent) and beginning construction of a new home in January—Roats fulfills the residency requirement through intent. If Council finds that he did not meet the obligation to reside in the city limits for the 12 months prior to the election, it would have 30 days to appoint someone to replace him.

At press time, Roats had earned 7.585 votes for the position, with Seales trailing closest of the four candidates at 6,926. While not declared yet, Roats held 45% of the vote and will most likely be chosen for Position 6 for City Council, raising the question whether City Council will weigh in on his eligibility.

About The Author

Erin Rook

Erin was a writer and editor at the Source from 2013 to 2016.
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