About 10 people called for the resignation of two Douglas County commissioners Wednesday over alleged misuse of funding from the Secure Rural Schools Act, lack of transparency and other accusations.
The protesters — a couple of them carrying signs — spoke during the public comment portion of the commissioner’s weekly meeting at the Douglas County Courthouse and demanded the resignation of commissioners Chris Boice and Tim Freeman.
“Our intentions are to issue a citizen’s arrest at the next board of commissioners meeting and if they do not comply, and we’ll submit evidence to the state police in accordance of the law, (we’ll) issue the arrest if they do not resign,” said Zach Pond, one of the organizers who presented a letter of resignation to the two commissioners.
Billy Russo of Dillard said the commissioners need to be held accountable.
“They’re spending money on extravagant things that are not needed,” Russo said.
The protests were organized by Christopher MacKenzie in response to an article published by The Oregonian earlier this month regarding the spending of federal money by the Douglas County commissioners.
According to The Oregonian, which filed public records requests to access county receipts, the commissioners bought first-class and premium airfare, paid to travel with a dog while attending a county event and expensed meals without providing itemized receipts.
Douglas County charged the newspaper nearly $2,700 for the public records that showed the expenses for six commissioners since 2015.
After the public comments, Freeman offered a detailed rebuttal of The Oregonian article and the use of Title III funds.
Freeman said commissioners have tried and failed to change the laws over how Title III money is spent.
“I would love to spend those dollars in better ways,” Freeman said.
According to The Oregonian, Freeman spent $1,500 for 38 meals for which he provided no itemized receipts, which is in violation of the county’s policy. Douglas County spokeswoman Tamara Howell said the itemization policy was new to the county but did not specify when it went into effect.
Money used for these expenses came from the Secure Rural Schools program, which is earmarked for firefighting, wildfire planning and search and rescue efforts. The national program has given $3 billion to Oregon counties since its inception in 2000.
A county worker allegedly raised concerns about Freeman's spending in February 2019, but the commissioner continued to file dinner expenses without itemization, according to The Oregonian.
Much of the federally funded travel was to lobby Congress against restrictions on federal logging, according to The Oregonian. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, who helped create Secure Rural Schools, has introduced legislation that prohibits counties from using the funds for lobbying.
In an advertisement in The News-Review on Sunday, the commissioners wrote, “Many of the questions presented to us from the Portland newspaper were of a personal nature with blatantly malicious accusations, speculation and assumptions that simply are not true.” The same letter was distributed Tuesday and posted to the county’s website.
The advertisement, published on page A5, was purchased after the commissioners submitted a guest column to The News-Review's that did not meet the newspaper's guidelines for publication. The News-Review requires guest columns be signed by a single author and be no longer than 800 words.
In documents released by the county, reporter Rob Davis of The Oregonian asked, “It appears that you and other commissioners have treated SRS Title III money as a personal slush fund. Would you agree with that characterization? If not, why?”
The letter from the commissioners stated that some of the upgrades were paid for personally by commissioners and did not use federal funding. Howell also noted that at times trips required upgrades because of the above-average size of the commissioners or because trips were scheduled at the last minute.
Chris Boice, the chair of the Douglas County board of commissioners, also released his own statement.
“We hope readers understand that local leaders don’t travel to these conferences because they’re glamorous or attend association meetings for the prestige,” he said. “These are important business trips on behalf of the people they represent.”
In their joint statement, the commissioners said they attend conferences to learn about forest management because “there is nothing more important than forest management for Douglas County citizens as it provides for all other services” and called the expenses “an investment in the future of Douglas County.”
Douglas County was also among the counties that won a lawsuit over how lands formerly owned by the Oregon & California Railroad would be managed. The counties will be able to manage the lands for timber production on a sustainable yield basis, which would be a minimum of 500 million board feet per year. Freeman previously noted that this would be enough to sustain the county’s budget.