Sunday, June 10, 2018

Mordock Park, Johnson City OR

Our next lil' adventure takes us out to the wilds of suburban Clackamas County, where we're visiting the lone city park in the tiny town of Johnson City, Oregon, pop. 566. The park's a cute little grassy area on the town's only lake, and I think the Flickr slideshow of it came out pretty well, but to be perfectly honest the park was the hook to go visit this... unusual small city. The peculiar thing about Johnson City is that its city limits are precisely the boundaries of the Johnson Mobile Estates mobile home park. All residences in town are mobile homes, all residents are renters, and the only property owners are the grandchildren of the city's founder, who willed it into being back in 1970.

Ever since I first read about the place, I've been intrigued (as an ex-poli sci major) about how the arrangement works: You have a mayor and city council and all the trappings of a 500-or-so person small city, but the city is also one family's private property, and they're the sole landlord of everyone in town. Even the city's park and the lake belong to the owners, not the city government. So (as I often do) I rummaged through the library's Oregonian newspaper database, hoping to see how this situation had worked out in practice. I was not at all surprised to see it's led to several ugly conflicts over the years, and here I am to share the gory details. So this post might get me banned from the city after it goes live, but hey, I've already got my photos, and I'm not really in a hurry to go back anyway, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

The trailer park (originally called "Johnson's Mobile City") first appeared in the paper in May 1959, in a small classified ad. Similar ads run regularly after that, and there's nothing that makes it stand out from any other trailer park. A December 1961 ad suggested that readers might like to come see the "largest Christmas tree", and check out a shiny new trailer space while they were there. The place doesn't appear to have figured in any actual news stories until the idea of incorporating as a city came up.

The first mention I can find about incorporation was an October 15th 1968 editorial against the idea, which condescendingly called it an "amusing little news story". Early articles (like this one) insisted on putting the city's name in scare quotes. The Oregonian was highly amused by the very idea of mobile home residents trying to exercise self-government; as far as I know the paper's never turned down a single chance to sneer at poor and working class people in their entire 150+ year history. The county commission agreed that incorporation was a silly idea and vetoed the original 1968 petition, but the would-be city fought all the way to the state Supreme Court and won after a two year battle. An April 1970 article on the upcoming incorporation vote mentioned that most of the people who had signed the 1968 petition had since moved, it being a mobile home park and all. The article noted, bemusedly, that, "The only reason given for incorporation was desire of the residents to control their own affairs." The article also explains that at some point during the long legal battle, state law had been changed to prevent any more Johnson Cities from happening, but legislators didn't move fast enough and Johnson City itself was grandfathered in.

Despite all the sneering from the state's paper of record, the new city incorporated in June 1970 by a 49-10 vote; the Oregonian rolled out the scare quotes for "Johnson City" one last time to mark the occasion. When asked about his plans, Delbert Johnson (the city's founder and namesake, as well as the trailer park's owner & sole proprietor, and owner of the city's sole permanent house) explained he didn't want to run for mayor or city council as it would "keep him tied down". The article mentions that as a city, it was now eligible for a cut of the state's gas, cigarette, & alcohol taxes, intimating without evidence that this might have been the ulterior motive. After the big election, the city existed quietly for the first couple of years, popping up in the news once when it got a small branch library in June 1972.

The first big newsworthy conflict popped up in April 1973, when surrounding areas outside the new city got the idea they might like to be incorporated too. The new laws to prevent another Johnson City appeared to also prevent them from incorporating as a new city of Clackamas, so someone had the bright idea that they could just annex themselves to the existing city instead and then rename it.

Cities normally like this sort of thing, since it means more residents and an expanded tax base; in this case it would have expanded the city's population 15-fold, and ended the city's odd single-landowner situation. But Johnson City was not a normal city, and Delbert hated the proposal & instructed Ralph Goode, the trailer park's 29 year old assistant manager (who just so happened to also be the city's mayor) to stop supporting it. Goode then quit the assistant manager job, but was looking to stay in town so he didn't also have to resign as mayor. One of the articles mentions that on top of everything else, the city council was meeting in Johnson's basement at the time. The council meetings must have been awkward.

Things got even more tense from there. On May 2nd, the Oregonian reported that the city council had unanimously rejected annexation, after Johnson presented a petition against it signed by 150 of the city's 170 residents, who also happened to be his tenants. Mayor Goode held out hope the annexation could go forward anyway with enough signatures from people in the proposed annexation area, and questioned whether people really had a choice to sign, since only 10 of them showed up at the council meeting. Goode resigned as mayor a week later and announced he would leave town as soon as possible, due to death threats he'd received over the annexation controversy. Also resigning were the city's police chief, city council president, and the temporary city recorder (who was also Goode's sister in law).

A remaining council member was chosen as the new mayor by secret ballot (which was apparently forbidden by the city charter), and two new council members were sworn in over the phone by the city attorney. An article the next day pointed out that the city's personnel moves were almost certainly illegal, and the fact that they had held three council meetings and one budget meeting over the course of an hour and twenty minutes was highly unusual.

In a May 9th article, "Johnson City controversy continues", ex-mayor Goode pointed out that any state funds (like gas, cigarette, & alcohol taxes) the city received were, by definition, going to improve Johnson's private property, and suggested maybe this wasn't ideal. Johnson insisted he was powerless where the city council was concerned, as he had no formal role & merely spoke up at council meetings from time to time. He admitted that incorporation had saved him money on the park's sewer situation, but insisted everything in town was fine, just "perking right along". That was the end of the proposed city of Clackamas, and the land surrounding the city remains unincorporated as of 2018.

(Quick trivia note here, the woman who replaced Goode as mayor had once been a traveling evangelist with Oral Roberts (yes, that Oral Roberts) during the 1940s and 1950s, according to her 1993 obit)

The city was in the news again briefly in January 1975 a former Johnson City cop was shot while trying to rob a Clackamas bank. Johnson was quoted saying "I don't think he'd rob a bank".

Another controversy arrived in March 1978, when the council proposed a new zoning ordinance that would prevent Johnson from redeveloping the city into a shopping center. Johnson's son pointed out that if his father really wanted to build a shopping center, he could just evict everyone and do it. The article mentions that Johnson had raised rents back in January, leading to two failed rent strikes. Johnson had told residents he might just kick everyone out and subdivide the land if they didn't pay up, which led to suspicions that he was planning to do that. The son mentioned his father planned to sue the city if the ordinance went forward. So the council killed the idea on a 4-1 vote a week later, also voting to expel the one holdout from the council. Who also got an eviction notice from Johnson around the same time, because democracy.

Local politics quieted down for a couple of decades after the shopping center incident, and we next heard from the city when Johnson passed away in April 1985. His obit described him as "flamboyant". At some point after 1978 he had moved to Las Vegas and started a jojoba oil plantation in the California desert, leaving his kids to run the city.

The city's 1994 municipal elections got a bit touchy. A husband and wife were running for two of the three city council seats, competing with two other candidates, and the city was also set to vote on a proposed charter amendment that would prohibit spouses or relatives from serving on the council at the same time. Voters elected the husband and the two other candidates, and approved the charter amendment, which was a somewhat awkward outcome. An article just after the election chuckled at the odd little city, interviewing a few locals & a co-owner. The article mentions that one of the city's main revenue sources, other than money from the state, was cat licensing fees. Seriously. Dogs were (and apparently still are) illegal in the city because they might attack the geese in the park.

In August 1996, city residents were up in arms about a proposal to ban skateboards, rollerblades, etc. from hilly streets of the city, which just happened to include the street in front of the mayor's trailer. An angry city council meeting followed, with residents largely opposing the idea & saying the city should have other priorities. The article mentioned that as the city now lacked a police force, the mayor would be in charge of issuing fines and confiscating skateboards and rollerblades.

Just over a month later, residents filed a recall petition against the mayor, claiming he'd been abusing his authority for years. One resident said the skateboard ban was the last straw. In October, the recall passed by a vote of 101 to 63. The council member who took over as temporary mayor insisted Mayor Lang had been "set up" by another council member (who happened to be the husband in the awkward 1994 election), and the whole thing was a personality conflict that had gotten out of hand. The recall came just a week before the regular 1996 general election for council seats, which again featured four candidates vying bitterly for three seats, plus an organized write in campaign, and a Byzantine set of scenarios around who would get to be mayor, depending on whether the county certified election results before the next city council meeting.

An article after the election said the Johnson City races were still too close to call, as 42 votes separated the four candidates, and there were still a bunch of write-ins to tally. The Oregonian didn't seem to publish a follow-up explaining how this fascinating saga turned out in the end, though a 1997 article mentioned that one of the recall campaigners was now a council member.

The city made the news occasionally through the 2000s. A July 2000 article chuckled again at the weird tiny city. Like the similar 1994 article, it related the same business about cats and dogs as before, and mentioned that as far as anyone knew it was the only 100% mobile home city in the entire United States, and therefore probably the world. The city celebrated its 30th birthday in September 2000; local citizens and a Johnson grandson talked fondly about the city's colorful history, although the article doesn't get into details of exactly how colorful it got at times. The warm fuzzies didn't last long, as the park's management company published 17 pages of strict new tenant rules in 2001. Residents were upset about this, and formed a tenants' association after their unique city government refused to get involved. I couldn't locate a follow-up article to see how this one turned out.

Despite the occasional drama, being a city council member apparently left plenty of time for hobbies. In 2004, a Johnson City councilman was arrested for moonlighting as an anti-graffiti vigilante, painting silver circles over other taggers' work. His big mistake seems to have been venturing beyond his city limits in search of graffiti; Portland Police nabbed him doing his thing in the Buckman neighborhood. They decided to charge him with many counts of vandalism, since legally his motive was irrelevant, and the paint he was using was actually harder to remove than the usual graffiti paint.

2006 saw another bout of resident anxiety about the owners selling or redeveloping their fair city, due to a recent rash of other mobile home parks closing and being turned into subdivisions or minimalls. The Johnsons again insisted they had no plans to do this anytime soon, and state law has since been changed to make it a little harder to just abruptly push everyone out of a trailer park.

A 2013 Tribune article concerns the city thinking about joining the surrounding Clackamas River water district, so that residents could vote in water board elections. Apparently a previous water board had tried to block selling water to Johnson City for reasons the article doesn't make clear. It seems that Johnson City had spent the previous few decades largely opting out of countywide and special district services, like the water district, which is ironic as many of these districts were created after the state made it hard to incorporate new cities. Among the various things they opted out of, Johnson City residents were (and are) the only people in the entire tri-county area ineligible for Clackamas County library cards; even Multnomah & Washington county residents could get them, thanks to reciprocal arrangements, but not Johnson City, so locals would have to get by with just the tiny honor system library inside city hall. Johnson City also opted out of the North Clackamas parks district, so hopefully Mordock Park here (named after a longtime mayor) addresses everyone's recreational needs.

County & special district services are normally funded through property taxes, so I imagine the deal is that the city's sole property owners didn't want to pay more, even though any tax hike could just be passed along to residents as a rent hike. An Oregon League of Cities doc I ran across indicated the city received no property tax revenue at all in FY 2011-2012, and I imagine this is true every year, meaning the city also doesn't levy any property taxes of its own. I suppose trying to tax your landlord would be a great way to get evicted.

One thing the city does have, though, it its own municipal court (something the City of Portland doesn't have), with a single part-time judge who's also a judge for Gladstone, Happy Valley, and Lake Oswego. A 2006 profile of Judge Ringle mentioned he'd been in this role for the city of Gladstone since 1965 (before Johnson City even existed), making him the state's longest-serving judge. He was also interviewed for a 2010 issue of the Oregon State Bar magazine. He sounds like a decent guy in the interview so I'm going to forego any Valkenvania jokes, not that anyone would get them anyway.

I am, however, puzzled by what (to me) looks like an obvious missed opportunity. The city has few sources of revenue outside of grants from the state and cat licensing, but it does have a municipal court, and it's maybe 1/8 mile east of I-205, separated only by a small nature preserve. I'm surprised they didn't pull the same trick as the city of Coburg (a bit north of Eugene) did with I-5, annexing a narrow strip of land out to the freeway, plus a stretch of the freeway itself, and then setting up an infamous speed trap, so infamous that one conservative website proclaimed Coburg the "Worst Little Town in America". While not winning any popularity contests, the traffic ticket business came to be up to 80% of the city's total revenue before the state stepped in and reined them in a bit. I suppose the taboo about annexing land beyond the trailer park is so strong they just won't do it even to rake in a massive pile of cash. Please note that I am not proposing the city actually do this, just saying I'm surprised they passed up the chance. A great 2014 Washington Post article explains how small cash-strapped cities across the St. Louis metro area came to depend on traffic fine revenue, and how that contributed to abusive and racist policing in cities like Ferguson. So yeah, if you happen to be an elected official in Johnson City and you're reading this, please don't even think about this idea; in fact, you can just forget you saw this entire paragraph, if you don't mind.

The adjacent nature preserve I mentioned above is the Wetland Conservancy's Hearthwood Preserve. I'd intended to make the visit a twofer and get some nature photos too, but this turned out not to be possible. The info page describes the place:

Hearthwood Preserve is the headwaters of Clackamas County’s Kellogg Creek. The wetland is a very dense willow, red osier dogwood, elderberry and Oregon ash scrub shrub wetland. Being the headwaters of Kellogg Creek, the 16 acre wetland plays an important role in cleaning the water as it heads down to it's confluence with the Willamette River in Milwaukie Oregon. The vegetation on this preserve is so dense that is creates a barrier for people to enter making it extremely valuable habitat for wildlife in this area. TWC has planted native trees such as Red Alder, Western Red Cedar and Oregon White Oak along the periphery of the property and continues to manage for invasive species such as Himalayan Blackberry.

In short, the place is not set up for visitors and there's no way in, therefore no photos and no blog post about it. So I reluctantly crossed it off my big todo list.

While I was putting this post together, I remembered a recent Quartz story that touches on company coal towns in Appalachia. Johnson City is not quite the same thing, of course, but the whole town is a business, and that business is to be its residents' landlord (and occasionally employer, as noted in the history section up above). That's just weird. The more usual company town model in the Northwest was the company timber town; I remember when Valsetz was bulldozed & burned by its corporate owners a bit over 30 years ago. Gilchrist was the last company timber town in Oregon, and its houses were sold to residents some years ago, but a few other company towns still exist, like PGE's tiny burg of Three Lynx, in the Cascades SE of Estacada.

Another fun model (if I can go off on a tangent for a moment) is the incorporated "shell" city with almost no residents, like notorious Vernon, CA. One family and its cronies ran the city for decades and somehow neglected to hold elections for most of that time, as the city evolved into a virtually tax-free and regulation-free industrial dystopia. The state tried to forcibly abolish the city a few years ago but somehow a deal was made and they've promised to clean up their act somehow. An entire season of True Detective was set in a thinly fictionalized version of the City of Vernon a few years back. Elsewhere in the LA metro area, City of Industry also has many businesses and almost no residents (hence the name); it doesn't have the same ugly reputation as Vernon, and when it makes the news it's generally about strippers [link is a safe-for-work news story about state labor laws] rather than Superfund sites. Oh, and then there's Colma, just south of San Francisco, a city made up almost entirely of cemeteries, with 1500 living residents and 1.5 million dead ones.

So... yeah, on that cheery note, back to the Portland area. Johnson City isn't the eastside's only tiny city; Maywood Park (pop. 752) is right on I-205 next to Rocky Butte, surrounded on all sides by the City of Portland. Back in 1967 it was part of unincorporated east Multnomah County when residents banded together to try to block construction of Interstate 205 through their neighborhood. Incorporation succeeded, but the reason they did it turned out to be a lost cause. Still, there's very little chance they'll be absorbed into Portland anytime soon, as their property taxes are significantly lower, and merging would make them just another part of the outer Eastside that city hall's forgotten all about. I haven't visited their fair city yet because despite the name, they don't actually have any city parks. The only real public space they have is, ironically, part of the I-205 bike path. And other than the unusual history and low taxes, the place looks like any other midcentury subdivision, so anyone who's looking for a Monaco or Caymans-style exotic tax haven is bound to be disappointed. I have this occasional idea it would be fun to engineer a bitter civic rivalry between Johnson City and Maywood Park, but I have no idea how one would go about it.

2 comments :

DJ Rick said...

This was another delightful read, but I beg to differ about Maywood Park being undistinctive. Those towering trees including several actual old-growth firs do set it apart and automatically make the mini-city rivalry an unfair match. I could imagine a scenario where septage from that city's several individual home septic systems becomes enough of a problem for the residents and the surrounding city of Portland (if not also the state and feds administering the freeways) that a solution might require linking to the city's sewer system, and an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" situation occurs. There apparently is an effort under way now for Maywood Park to study the feasibility of a sewer system, so says the city website. For now, though, it looks fairly idyllic as a landing spot if you architecturally have Eastmoreland taste but a Lents or St. Johns budget, and you are okay with a little bit of constant traffic buzz. I learned this in my own feasibility study of "Could I see myself living there?", resulting in a definitely maybe for the if/when of my decades-delayed dream of moving 600 miles north of this ashtray landscape of Sacramento.

Unknown said...

Hey! I live in Johnson City and its super hard to find the history on this place. Thank you for posting! now I have more leads in the oregonian archives. We are needing to start a tenant assoc again because the NEW rules are utter nonsense and the management harassment it out of control.