By Pat Caldwell
ONTARIO – Ontario City Councilor Marty Justus said those driving the repeal of the city’s sales tax have profited at the city’s expense and have “done nothing but benefited keeping the city down.”
Justus, an Ontario realtor, leveled the criticism in a text message with a local resident. He confirmed the message, in which he said that “the old guard has kept the city where it is” and “the folks that are spearheading this have benefited keeping the city down. All of them have made money at the [city’s] expense.”
Justus wouldn’t elaborate on his remarks or identify the individuals to whom he was referring.
“My comments are my comments and I stand by them,” Justus said.
Justus’s comments came after local business leaders orchestrated a petition drive to refer to voters the city’s proposed 1 percent sales tax. City officials have insisted deep cuts in police and other services are in the offing without new tax revenue.
The Ontario City Council approved the tax in September with collection to start. That is on hold now pending the outcome of the May election.
Justus’s remarks could deepen the divide by Ontario city officials and local business owners who have questioned the need for the sales tax. Critics also have said city officials should have put the tax to a vote on their own.
City officials say the tax was approved after several public hearings and listening sessions.
Ontario Mayor Ron Verini said in an email when provided a copy of Justus’s remarks that “I happen to not agree with the tone and message it delivers.” He said Justus wasn’t speaking for the rest of the city council and that “everyone has the right to their opinions.”
The tax plan, though, triggered widespread criticism by residents and set off an effort by a coalition of opponents to place the issue on the May 2018 ballot. Ontario residents Jackson Fox, Larry Tuttle and Dan Lopez spearheaded the petition drive.
Last month, sales tax opponents successfully collected the required number of petition signatures to place the tax referendum on the ballot.
Meanwhile Fox sued the city in Malheur County Circuit Court contesting the language used by the city in its ballot title. Fox asserted city officials used misleading and biased terms in describing what voters would be deciding. Fox claimed the language of the measure doesn’t explain the real purpose of the referendum.
Earlier this month, the city agreed to change the title of the referendum because it didn’t comply with Oregon law. City attorney Larry Sullivan agreed in legal documents filed Nov. 8 to rewrite the ballot title so it followed Oregon statues. Sullivan also agreed to rewrite the original question of the referendum.
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