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Time for Plan B on Lane County Courthouse

June 30th, 2019 by dk

Now that Lane County’s Measure 20-299 has failed with voters, it’s safe to ask the question: Was there ever a Plan B?

Superstitions grow around ballot measures. Backup plans are believed to convey weakness or fear. Leaders try to keep things clear for voters — up or down, yes or no. That may be smart politically, but it’s not how any of us make real choices in life. We plan for contingencies. Politicians pretend they don’t.

The county presented its $154 million bond measure to voters as a bargain. The bond would go into effect only if state and federal sources added almost another $100 million to the project.

Initial polling showed the measure could pass in May, if voters were well informed about the current need and the financial benefits for the county. But that polling was done before Eugene 4J schools decided to hurry its serial levy onto the May ballot.

The county made those two arguments. First, the local money would be leveraged with other sources to get us a better courthouse. Second, the current courthouse lacks many safety features we expect in modern public buildings.

Those may have been good arguments, but who was making them? There were op-ed essays and letters to the editor, usually from local politicos and civic leaders. But who was making the case to people who don’t read newspapers?

I saw no lawn signs. No public rallies. No waving supporters at busy intersections. No media events designed to highlight the need. Direct mail flyers and Voters Pamphlet arguments alone did not suffice.

The arguments on the other side were more visceral, more personal, and usually more impassioned. Two broad themes emerged. First, there was skepticism that county planners had economized on the project in every way possible. Second, people complained — sometimes with heartfelt honesty — that they can barely make ends meet. They doubted whether county leaders felt the same pinch.

When you pit an intellectual argument against an emotional one, the side with passion almost always wins. That’s not a new rule, but we saw it enforced on Tuesday.

Now that voters turned down Measure 20-299, will Salem legislators feel less obligated to approve state funding that was all-but-promised? Will other counties try to get their building projects fast-tracked ahead of ours? Will the state renew its $94 million contribution — but only if Lane County voters approve a modified bond measure in the fall?

Will voters resent being asked twice about funding the same project? Voters don’t usually like do-overs. If the county scales back the project the second time around, will voters ask why leaders didn’t trim the project sooner? Will the reductions be deemed sufficient?

If there was always a Plan B, it never rose above a whisper. Nobody wanted to jinx the bond measure’s success by questioning it out loud. Superstition should not be the order of the day.

I understand that leaders don’t like to hear their strategies questioned. But this is worse than that. Some don’t want to be accused of having any strategy at all.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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