Marion County Courthouse (File/Salem Reporter)

SALEM — A trio of potential ballot measures to change the state’s forestry practices don’t comply with the state’s constitution, a Marion County Circuit judge said Wednesday in backing Secretary of State Bev Clarno’s decision to block the measures.  

Circuit Judge Daniel Wren said in an opinion that the three petitions did not mesh with a constitutional requirement that measures be limited to one issue, and that Clarno “properly rejected” the three petitions. Wren denied a motion from the petitioners that argued for a judgment in their favor.

Clarno rejected the petitions last month, prompting petitioners Vikram Anantha and Micha Gross to ask a judge to overturn her decision.

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The three petitions proposed slightly different measures that supporters say were intended to protect the state’s water and forests, limiting practices like clear cutting near certain bodies of water or spraying pesticides in those areas.

The petitioners’ attorney, Jesse Buss, declined to comment Wednesday.

“I am pleased the court has affirmed the importance of the single subject rule,” Clarno said in a statement Wednesday. “Voters should not need a law degree to interpret ballot measures.”

Clarno maintained that the complexity of each proposed measure could confuse voters.

“The single subject rule exists to protect voters from having to vote on ballot initiatives that are just way too complicated,” Clarno said. “It’s my duty as secretary of state to protect Oregon voters and it’s a duty I take seriously.”

Clarno’s rejection of the petitions had raised eyebrows. Her office hired Portland-based law firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt to defend her decision against the legal challenge after Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, a Democrat, declined to provide state legal help.

Under the contract with the law firm, obtained through a public records request, Clarno’s office agreed to pay $690 an hour for attorney Michael Gillette, $400 an hour for attorney Dave Anderson and $320 an hour for attorney Jessie Schuh. The total payment is not to exceed $30,000, according to the contract.

Rosenblum told the Oregon Capital Bureau in a statement last month that she declined to represent Clarno because doing so would require her to make legal arguments that then might be turned against the Legislature and its ability to craft new laws. The state Justice Department represents the Legislature.

Clarno’s office said Wednesday that she “decided it was better to obtain independent counsel than rely on the Department of Justice in this case.”

Clarno also took the unusual step of attaching her correspondence with Rosenblum to her news release Wednesday.

The documents show that Clarno wrote to Rosenblum Oct. 21, saying she had just met with three representatives from Rosenblum’s office Deputy Secretary of State Rich Vial and Steve Trout, head of the state Elections Division.

“During that meeting it became clear that your office had reservations about defending me in that suit,” Clarno wrote, and so she wanted permission to hire her own lawyers.

Rosenblum replied Oct. 24, approving retaining the outside lawyers.

She said defending Clarno’s actions could be adverse to the legislature’s interests and “adverse to the interests of the people wielding the initiative power reserved to them by the Oregon Constitution.”

Reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 971-304-4148.

Reporter Jake Thomas: [email protected] or 503-575-1251.