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Brookings: Home rule ready to go public

Brookings City Attorney Martha Rice has completed a draft home rule charter for the county – and already a group of citizens is eager to run with it.

City Manager Gary Milliman presented the draft document at its city council meeting Monday evening.

The city itself cannot dictate what form of government under which the county operates. But in light of the county’s fiscal problems, the Brookings City Council felt it would be advantageous if the county considered changing to a home rule charter.

Citizens interested in changing the form of government would then be required to collect 617 valid voter signatures and get those to the county clerk by August 7 to get the measure on the November ballot.

“Once this moves beyond Brookings,” said City Manager Gary Milliman, “it’s going to have a life of its own.”

A handful of citizens have already branched out from a new citizens committee formed at the urging of Commissioner Susan Brown. The citizens committee is again evaluating problems and solutions for Curry County as a whole, while the smaller group is tackling the possibility of a home rule charter.

The draft Rice created is similar to the charter in Hood River County. Carl King, a retired land-use attorney from unincorporated Nesika Beach who is among those evaluating Oregon’s nine charter counties, said it’s also similar to Washington County’s charter – even though the population there is larger and more diverse.

“I would look at is as, ‘Take two from Column A and three from Column B’ and you could come up with a very, very good charter that would address most of the concerns you hear in the county today.”

What’s proposed

In the draft – which can be changed – the county would be run by a five-member board of county commissioners that sets policy for the county. Day-to-day operations would be overseen by a county administrator or manager.

Power – and who has it for what duties – can be written into a charter.

The advantages of a five-member board, Rice said, is that it makes it easier for commissioners to bandy about ideas without creating a quorum. Currently, if two of the three commissioners even talk about any idea, it is considered a quorum, or majority of the board, and must be brought into the realm of the public.

As written, the charter would pay the board chair $10,000 and the other four $,9000 a year for their work.

“Personally, I’d make them more part-time with a limited stipend to cover their expenses,” King said, adding that elected officials are accountable to the citizens they represent. “That way there’s some some citizen involvement to answer the problem we have that people just don’t trust county government to do what’s right.”

Under the draft charter, the three county commissioners currently seated – David Itzen, Susan Brown and David Brock Smith – would retain their seats and appoint two others. All five seats would then be up for election when their respective terms end.

The draft also indicates the commissioners would be selected at-large – meaning from anywhere within Curry County. That, too, could change, Rice said, if a citizens group feels the Brookings-Harbor area, with a much larger population base, would be too heavily weighted.

If districts were formed, the Brookings-Harbor area alone would likely have three of the five commissioners representing their interests, based on legal requirements to divide districts based on populations for fair representation. That could even result in placing Gold Beach and Port Orford in one district.

“Any concerns about having at-large elections should be put to rest right now,” said Councilor Kelly McClain. “Brookings is not over-represented with the system we have now.”

Councilors Monday debated the merits of a volunteer or paid board of commissioners, as well.

“The motivation should not be about money,” McClain said, adding that commissioners should be reimbursed for travel and other expenses. “It should be about their dedication to the county.”

Is it needed?

Former County Commissioner George Rhodes said there is nothing stopping sitting commissioners from changing the way the government operates right now.

If they wanted, he said, they could hire a county administrator to tackle day-to-day issues. To attract a high-caliber administrator would likely cost at least $100,000 he said – and could be paid for if county commissioners took a pay cut.

“Two of them ran (on election platforms) saying they’d take a cut in pay,” Rhodes said. “We haven’t seen them do that yet. They also have the authority to make (their jobs) part-time. Why put a ballot measure together that might or might not pass, spend all that money, when all we need to do is hire a county administrator?”

Without a county administrator, there is no consistent in management philosophy over the years, Rhodes added.

“The board changes every two to four years; you can’t run a government if you don’t have a consistent management philosophy,” he said. “And there’s been a real lack of management consistency at the county.”

He notes that Lane County has a home rule charter – and it is likely the next county to financially fail.

“The problem here is one of having revenue,” Rhodes said. “Creating a new governance doesn’t change that. Why are you talking about changing our model of governance when it’s not going to solve the problem?” 

The last time a home rule charter was put before the voters, it was overwhelmingly defeated. Rhodes thinks it was because the promoters didn’t have solid information regarding the cost benefits of hiring an administrator.

“Hiring an administrator is not going to increase revenue or decrease the costs – it may even increase costs,” Rhodes said. “But you do get, hopefully, an employee in place for a long time and create a consistent management philosophy across the organization.”

The best scenario? “Three full-time commissioners and a full-time county administrator,” he said. “Second best? Three part-time commissioners and a full-time administrator. And the city and the port can tell you how hard it is to find a qualified individual for the amount we’re able to offer.”

Open to change

Rice noted that the citizens group promoting the charter would be allowed to make any changes it wants to the draft document – for example, commissioner pay or representation at-large or by district – provided the results comply with law.

King said he knows anything presented to citizens shouldn’t be bogged down in minutiae – what many say is what killed a similar proposal in the past.

“It mandated commissioners meet after 6 p.m., what the permit fees were. ...” King said.

He’d also like to see a charter with fewer elected positions.

The treasurer, assessor and clerk, he said, have job descriptions that are pretty cut and dry.

“The assessor can’t decide to assess one property better than another (identical) property,” King noted. “But the sheriff does have the right to exercise discretion not to arrest someone, and the DA, not to prosecute. If the sheriff, DA and commissioners are the only ones who have discretion, as a citizen I’d want to have a say (in elections).”

King’s ideal charter is far from reality; the group hasn’t even met yet.

“Brookings sort of pushed the button and has us working much faster than we would have otherwise,” King said with a laugh. “Our group is not ready to gather signatures yet. Our group doesn’t even know what a charter would look like.”

“If people are thinking there’s a savior out there, the savior is sitting right here in Curry County,” Rhodes said. “The citizens need to step up and figure out a way to support county government.” 

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