Voters of Douglas County have wisely said “no” to proposed Home Rule Charters three times in the past. We hope they will make the same choice this year. The writers of this commentary include myself; Umitilla County Commissioner Larry Givens, immediate past president of AOC; and Polk County Commissioner Craig Pope, who will assume the AOC presidency in November.
While AOC as an organization has no position on the measure, as individual commissioners we are speaking up because we believe this measure will not provide a more accountable and effective county government at reduced cost. It will in fact diminish Douglas County’s standing, influence and efficiency.
As many of our colleagues like to say, “If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” Only elected commissioners who have made a full-time commitment to the work of the people can be an effective voice for their interests in Salem and Washington, D.C., especially for a county the size of Douglas County. A non-elected county manager usually doesn’t have the political stature, or, frankly the time, to do that.
The savings envisioned by a county manager system have often proven to be illusory. In fact, creating another layer of bureaucracy between the elected officials and the public will most likely add costs, not reduce them. Counties were created to be the local service delivery mechanism for the state. In the beginning, no resident was supposed to be more than a day’s horseback ride away from the county seat. Times have changed, but the fundamental role of counties has not. A strong relationship between county and state government is in the people’s best interest, and that can be difficult to maintain with commissioners who serve part time and need to maintain a job to support their own families. This work takes a long-term commitment.
We’ve achieved some real victories in the past few years, such as working together to keeping the Coast Guard helicopters operational on the Oregon Coast, but there are a lot of ongoing battles, especially in the realm of natural resources. Our experience with Home Rule counties that use this model hasn’t generally proven to be successful. Some of the counties that have tried this model have seen truly disastrous results — multiple recall elections and a constant churn of managers and department heads. We like to wax poetic about citizen legislators, but the reality is that county government across Oregon today is a multimillion-dollar business that requires the full-time attention of a board of commissioners engaged in every facet of the peoples business.
Another question we hope the voters will ask themselves: If we do want to consider a charter again, shouldn’t its creation be the result of an open collaborative process, instead of the work of one interest group? Special interest and single-issue politics rarely accomplish much, if anything, for the public good. We appreciate your consideration and encourage you to vote “no.”