The state Elections Division has thrown out a complaint by Ashland Parks & Recreation Commissioner Jim Lewis against recall petitioner Mary Sundberg, deciding that her statements in the recall petition were either “opinions” or were not knowingly false when made.
Sundberg and others last year mounted an unsuccessful recall election against Lewis and two other commissioners after a major reorganization of the Ashland Senior Center and the firing of its longtime director, Chris Dodson, by the APRC, which oversees the Ashland senior program.
The controversial moves resulted in many meetings, marches and formation of an ad hoc Senior Advisory Committee to try and get all parties on board toward common goals. A recall attempt on Commissioners Jim Lewis, Mike Gardiner and Rick Landt failed in March by wide margins.
Recall petitions filed by Mary Sundberg, Avram Chetron and Mary Canfield, claimed parks commissioners mismanaged funds and personnel, violated public meetings law and disregarded public input and audit recommendations.
Lewis in February 2018 filed a complaint with the Elections Division of the Secretary of State’s office, claiming the statements were untrue.
A judgment on Sept. 4 from Michelle Teed, an investigations and legal specialist with the Elections Division, said it is illegal to make false statements in a recall document, but not when it merely expresses an opinion, such as when someone says such statements as “the office holder is corrupt” and “the candidate does not support education.”
Lewis charged that Sundberg, the lead petitioner, made false statements by saying, in the recall petition, that commissioners “mismanaged their $9 million annual budget, seriously threatening the city’s general fund.”
Lewis also said it was false when petitioners said the commission “repeatedly and flagrantly failed to follow Oregon Public Meetings Law by under-publicizing meetings, disallowing or ignoring public input and failing to accurately reflect citizen input in meeting minutes.”
The investigation found there is no objective standard by which to measure if a budget was mismanaged, threatened or sustainable. Similarly the investigation said there is no objective standard to measure “repeated” or “flagrant,” so they are merely opinions and, in any case “were not knowingly false when made.”
Sundberg, in a phone interview, said she was “relieved” to have the issue over and declined any further comment.
Her attorney, William A. Mansfield of Medford, wrote to state investigators in June, noting her statements were opinions and, “As you know, a person’s opinions are not subject to court scrutiny under our right of free speech and our right to petition and criticize our government, as protected by both the Oregon and the U.S. Constitutions.”
He said Sundberg is a retired nurse with no experience in legal or political matters and “you are not going to be able to establish in a criminal prosecution that any statements were knowingly, falsely made, as required by criminal statutes at hand. Ms. Sundberg was engaged in exercising her Constitutional rights.”
Mansfield asked the state to close the investigation so “that no more of your time and our tax money be spent on this case and that Ms. Sundberg be exonerated from this cloud that has been placed upon her.”
Lewis, in an interview, said he is “not totally surprised but I am disappointed” with the ruling because the statements in the petition “are false statements and nowhere does it say ‘in my estimation’ or ‘in my opinion’” before saying he mismanaged his duties.
Lewis said, if he had the money and legal skills, he would “totally appeal” the investigator’s findings. He said the recall language “is a way to harm one’s integrity” and the recall effort was “to prove we were maliciously nefarious. These are powerful words and were repeatedly stated as facts.
“Luckily, in our town, we have people who stop and take time to understand issues and saw it as an effort to get rid of three commissioners … I’ve gotten over it and … I’m glad the voting public saw through it.”
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.