Life, they say, is a journey and as I sat across a coffee table from Doug Robertson I could see his journey had come to a painful crossroad.
In a series of first impressions that have been my first two years in Douglas County, my immediate impression of Robertson was very positive. He’d come by the office not long after I arrived at The News-Review to talk about the county he loves; a love affair that has spanned more than three decades of intimacy through his service as a Douglas County commissioner.
I didn’t know what he wanted to talk about when he contacted me last week asking if he could swing by, but I knew it must be important because a guy with that much responsibility doesn’t have time to waste.
I learned quickly that Oregon’s counties operate much differently than they do in California. For starters, the 58 Golden State counties are run by supervisors, not commissioners and each county board has five members, not three.
California counties also have county managers, or CEO’s who run the day-to-day county “business.” The elected board sets the policy, but the department heads report to the county manager, not to the board of supervisors.
That makes sense because the CEO is generally a professional manager; someone who knows how to manage an operation the size of most counties that have multi-million-dollar budgets and issues that seem to get more difficult each year.
Having three elected people run a county the size of Douglas County, with direct management responsibility over several departments seems a bit dangerous to me. It assumes voters will always elect people qualified to manage anything, let alone a multi-million-dollar budget and the people responsible for delivering results.
We know from history that voters are fully capable of electing complete idiots.
Besides…why do cities have city managers (Lance Colley is an example of a professional), but leave counties to be managed by elected commissioners?
Under those circumstances, Douglas County has been blessed to have Robertson anchor its three-member commission since 1981. He is the best argument you can make against term limits because the way county government is structured requires experience you can’t get in four or even eight years.
Not in this economic climate, where Douglas County finds itself in a fight for its life.
When he ran for another four-year term just a couple of years ago Robertson probably figured it would be his last and he fully intended to complete his full term.
Then life happened, as it always does. Forest Gump called it a box of chocolates and half the fun is the anticipation.
I could tell when Robertson sat down last week that life had taken him to one of those crossroads we all come to several times in our lives. He’d bitten into one of those chocolates and it made him wince.
It took him a bit to get to the point. Robertson is a man who measures his words, a skill missing in many parts of the political world today. He said he was 36 when he was first elected to the county commission and that he woke up one day and he was 70.
I know the feeling. I celebrated my 63rd birthday on Friday and all I could think of was, “WTF?” (aka “What The Frick?”).
Has it really been 45 years since I graduated high school and embarked on what would be the greatest summer of all time?
It’s easy to say it’s just a number, but when they stick 70 candles on a cake it can still take the wind out of you.
Then there are the priorities and those — for most of us — begin with family. Robertson said his son hasn’t been doing well and that he needs to spend more time with him. Parents are always parents and our children are always our children, no matter how old they, or we, get.
And time is something to be valued as they stick enough candles in our cake to burn down a house.
We don’t have to like Robertson’s decision, but we should all respect it. He has earned every bit of that and owes nothing to any of us.
It is a critical time for Douglas County and finding a replacement for a man who knows so much won’t be easy. Those 30-plus years have bought Douglas County a lot of capital in Salem and in D.C. and we can’t afford to lose those relationships if we want any real economic future. We just elected Tim Freeman, who will begin his term in January and his experience and political connections will be doubly important now that Robertson is leaving.
Based on the seven candidates we had running for Joe Laurence’s commission post, I suspect there will good interest in Robertson’s job and I’m glad to see voters will have a chance to weigh in on that in November.
Until then, we should bid a fond farewell to Doug Robertson and wish him all the best. His service to Douglas County has been historic and significant.
Jeff Ackerman is publisher of The News-Review. He can be reached at 541-957-4263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.