Tangle over sales tax heats up after Ontario community leader seizes political sign from store

Former city councilor Charlotte Fugate tore down a political sign advocating a “no” vote on a proposed city sales tax at the Vintage Rose antique store in downtown Ontario last week. (The Enterprise/John L. Braese).

ONTARIO – An Ontario civic leader twice questioned downtown businesses about opposition to the proposed sales tax.

Charlotte Fugate, a former Ontario city councilor, last week tore down a political sign opposing the tax that was posted inside Vintage Rose, a downtown business.

Owners of Andrews Seed Company, a few blocks away, said Monday that Fugate had confronted their employees earlier about signs opposing the tax posted outside.

“We had a store full of people and she asked our store manager ‘Are those your signs?’ and she then turned and walked out,” said Susan Kurth, who owns the business with her husband Mike. “She just wanted to clarify those were our signs.”

Kurth said her “Vote No Sales Tax” signs had been “up for weeks.” Fugate resigned from three local posts last week after the incident at the Vintage Rose, an antique store at 204 S. Oregon St. Fugate has been promoting the sales tax and personally donated $500 to the campaign conducted by Citizens for a Better Ontario.

The tax measure, on the May ballot, has drawn intense interest in the community, including among business leaders. Campaigns supporting and opposing the tax have raised several thousand dollars, buying yard signs and political advertising. The Ontario City Council approved the tax last fall, but it was referred to voters by a petition circulated by local business leaders.

Word of Fugate’s actions spread rapidly through local political and business circles last week.

Fugate told a reporter from the Malheur Enterprise Thursday that the incident was “none of your business.”

In a later statement to the Argus Observer, Fugate explained that, “While touring the downtown in support of the sales tax, I discovered one of our Revitalize Board members was not in support of the sales tax and I could not understand. I let my emotions get the better of me.”

The publisher of the Argus Observer is the partner of Marty Justus, an Ontario city councilor active in the sales tax campaign.

On Monday, Fugate confirmed going into Andrews Seed to ask about the signs and said she made no other statements. She declined further comment.

Tracy Hammond, the owner of Vintage Rose, said Fugate came into the business on Tuesday, April 10, to complain about a “No on Sales Tax” sign posted inside the front door. Hammond said she defended the posting and said she agreed with its sentiments.

She said Fugate told her “you need to get informed” and turned to leave the store and then ripped the sign off the door.

“I was in shock,” Hammond said.

Hammond said she didn’t report the matter to police. Cal Kunz, Ontario police chief, confirmed his department had not received a complaint. If a “complainant were to bring the matter forward we would proceed with an investigation,” Kunz said in an email to the Enterprise.

Jo Ward, a Payette vendor, was in the store at the time.

“It was like wow, what is her problem?” said Ward, who said she doesn’t know Fugate.

“It was just weird to me. I personally don’t see why people have to act like that. If we are adults, shouldn’t we all be acting like one? Especially someone who represents the city?” said Ward.

Under Oregon law, a person destroying and stealing political signs can be charged with criminal mischief or trespassing. Third-degree criminal mischief involves tampering with property, a class C misdemeanor.

Dave Goldthorpe, Malheur County district attorney, said someone taking a sign also could be charged with theft.

Mayor Ron Verini, who chairs the political action committee pushing for the sales tax, said Fugate resigned from the campaign, the city Budget Committee, and as co-chair of Revitalize Ontario. Revitalize Ontario is a local group that aims to develop and promote the city’s downtown area.

Fugate resigned her city post in an email Thursday to City Manager Adam Brown. She referenced Justus.

“Marty felt that it would be better for me to resign from the Budget Committee because the tax foes might make a big deal of me serving,” Fugate wrote. “Let me know if I can be of any help behind the scene.”

In a text message to Hammond, Justus wrote, “We want you to know we acknowledge the poor behavior of Charlotte Fugate. We have expressed to her in no uncertain terms that that kind of behavior is not and will not be tolerated.”

He then apologized on behalf of the pro-sales tax committee, Citizens for a Better Ontario.

“My understanding is she might have got a little overzealous in her passion,” Verini said.

Reporter Jayme Fraser contributed to this report.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.