Council Chaos: Remaining Baker City Councilors Resign after Court Ruling to Trigger State Law

BAKER CITY – The soap opera that is the City of Baker City took a left turn on Wednesday night, when all three remaining city councilors resigned their seats.

The latest mass council resignation in a town that’s now sadly used to them comes after Baker County Circuit Court Judge Matt Shirtcliff on Wednesday afternoon ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against Mayor Beverly Calder and the city council, stating that the council requires a quorum of at least four members to fill vacancies. The plaintiffs, residents of Baker, advocated for the city to schedule a special election to allow city voters to fill the vacancies.

Interim City Manager Jon France tells Elkhorn Media Group that if a special election was ordered, it would be at least until February, putting the city at a “standstill”.

In response to the ruling, Mayor Calder and councilors Ray Duman and Jason Spriet all resigned, leaving the council with no members and triggering an Oregon state law that states that when a city council has no members, county commissioners will now have to appoint enough councilors to constitute a quorum, which is four in Baker City. Those four will fill the three remaining vacancies.

All three now former councilors refer to ORS 221.160(2), which states that when a city council has no members, the county commissioners can appoint enough councilors to constitute a quorum.

Shirtcliff’s decision had significant implications, but is now essentially null and void. It effectively rendered the council, comprised of three members, incapable of filling vacant positions or executing any other actions. An alternative, advocated for by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, was for the city to organize a special election to address these vacancies. However, with the recent resignation of all councilors, the only remaining recourse aligns with state law, which now hand those that authority in the hands of the three county commissioners; Shane Alderson, Bruce Nichols and Christina Witham.

In her resignation letter, Calder states:

To The Esteemed Members of the Baker County Commission and to the citizens of Baker City that I have been honored to serve;

With the express intent to save the citizens of Baker City the cost of a special election, and to avoid the delay which would put the city in a critical position without leadership as well as any other harms stemming from this disruption of city business; I, Beverly Calder, hereby offer my resignation from the Baker City Council effective immediately on the 27th day of September, 2023.The explicit purpose of my resignation is to trigger ORS 221.160(2).

The resignations of the three remaining city council members would result in all positions on the Baker City Council becoming vacant. The authority to appoint a quorum for the transaction of city business would fall to the Baker County Commissioners as the governing body of the county. The persons appointed by the Baker County Commission shall appoint persons to fill the remaining vacancies. All persons appointed by the Baker County Commision would serve until successors are elected and qualified to serve following the general election in November 2024 and the swearing in of the new council in January 2025.

I offer my resignation with a heavy heart and the understanding that this is the only productive option that will serve the best interests of the community that I love and have had the privilege to serve.

Calder’s resignation also essentially nullifies a campaign to recall her. Bryan Dalke of Baker City filed the recall petition on and has been gathering signatures to force a recall election. He tells Elkhorn Media Group he was near 500 signatures by Wednesday night.

The initial case stemmed from a lawsuit filed by three Baker City residents, Jeffrey C. Blake, Joshua A. Connor and Kathrine L. Burnett, naming as defendants the city council and Mayor Beverly Calder.

The main argument of the case revolved around the interpretation of Section 15 of the city charter, the primary component of which states: “A vacancy in the council shall be filled by appointment by a majority of the council.”

In his written decision, Shirtcliff wrote that he “must interpret the charter as a whole.”

Judge Shirtcliff notes that the defendants argue that the language in Section 15 — “a majority of the council” but without the word quorum — “overrides the general rule that a quorum of at least four members is required.”

The judge disagreed with that interpretation.

Shirtcliff wrote that “Section 15 does not remove the quorum requirement, and the court will not read into the section language that is not inserted.” He added: “Reading the provisions together, there must first be a quorum to do business and, in the case of filling a vacancy, appointment shall be made by a majority of the council. This indicates that a majority of a quorum may be different than a majority of the council.”

To read the entire decision, please click on the link