A group of citizens has written a draft county home rule charter and started the process to get on the ballot an initiative asking voters to change the form of government in Curry County.
The group, the Citizens Charter Committee, or “C-3,” is an offshoot of Commissioner Susan Brown’s Curry County Fiscal Independence Committee that is trying to figure out how the county can fix its financial plight while creating a law enforcement district and a permanent means by which to fund it.
“It’s important for the people in Salem to know it’s coming,” said Carl King of Nesika Beach, who’s heading up C-3. “They need to know there is a group of citizens in Curry County who are taking action to address our problem.”
Brookings city officials were among the first to suggest the idea, and City Manager Gary Milliman had the city attorney draft a petition to change the form of government at the county level. The petition was then made available for anyone who wanted to collect signatures to get it on an upcoming ballot.
All three Curry County cities operate under home rule.
The discussion has reared its head in light of suggestions made throughout the area that the current general law form of government is ineffective.
“It’s primarily the form of government,” said King, a retired land use lawyer originally from Massachusetts. “We have a three-member board of commissioners who can’t talk to each other outside a public meeting. And I can’t imagine ever working for three bosses that have equal say in what I do, and that seems to be what happens.”
Home rule charters typically involve the creation of a board of county commissioners — often part-time and/or volunteer — who oversee the direction of the county; and an administrator who takes care of issues that crop up on a daily basis.
C-3’s proposal would involve replacing the three full-time, salaried commissioners with a board of five, part-time commissioners who receive annual stipends. Those stipends could not increase by a percentage greater than that received by Social Security beneficiaries.
Five commissioners would allow any two to meet to discuss ideas pertinent to the county without creating a quorum and violating state meeting laws. New ideas could then be presented in a public forum.
The proposed charter would also involve hiring a county administrator and allowing that person to appoint all county officials with the exception of the sheriff and district attorney. The sheriff and DA would then be independent of the county commissioners, with the exception of their departmental budgets.
And voters would no longer vote for other elected officials, including the assessor, surveyor, treasurer and clerk.
An administrator or manager, in most county home rule charters, deals with the day-to-day issues, freeing up commissioners to address the overall direction of the county.
The goal of the draft charter is to “reorganize county government to provide professional administration of departments that in turn provide services for the residents of the county, to enable those departments to provide the services effectively and efficiently (all the) while making no changes in the residents’ control over the ways the county can raise revenue,” King wrote in an email.
“A professional county administrator would free up department heads to provide the services they need to,” King said. “They (department heads) shouldn’t be tied down with administrative details that aren’t the real purpose of their being there.”
He noted that the proposal is not a reflection of the current board.
“This is in no way passing judgment on their performance,” King said. “It’s in reaction to the nature of their jobs. I’m not saying they ought not to be reappointed. It seems to the committee that it makes more sense to have a professional administrator be the person to whom they (department heads) look for approval. It is the most effective and efficient way to deliver services to the people.”
The district attorney and sheriff would remain elected positions and have discretion over how their departments are operated, with the exception of their budget, which would remain in the hands of the county commissioners.
“The treasurer has a job that requires certain skills,” King said. “The clerk has a job — the assessor, the surveyor — that requires certain skills. We think you can get that better in a process where you search for applicants, not by a popularity vote. The people should still choose how they wish law enforcement to behave.”
Crafting a draft
The draft charter is the result of meetings over the past six weeks that included citizens from throughout the area, as well as the county’s three city mayors, managers and their council members.
The group reviewed the state’s nine existing charters and various other resources to create it.
A ballot measure to change the form of government in Curry County failed in 2008. That measure, which was soundly defeated on a 75-25 margin, was deemed to have overly addressed departmental operations that, under most home rule charters is left to department heads.
Many elements of the current form of government would remain the same under the draft charter, although could be changed in the future.
Commissioners would still need to put any new tax or tax increase on the ballot for residents’ approval, and any ordinance establishing fees would still be subject to initiative and referendum by the residents.
Some citizens in the community have indicated their frustration that county commissioners aren’t willing to take pay cuts, even as others have had their departments slashed, spun off to nonprofit agencies or eliminated entirely.
“They could — immediately — adopt a budget that limits their compensation to that appropriate for a government of part-time, citizen volunteers and hire a professional county administrator,” King said. “It is clear to those who attend their meetings, however, that they are unlikely to do either and that an initiative petition charter is our only recourse if we wish to move forward.”
All involved in the issue are unsure upon which ballot the question would be placed, as there are still questions at the state level regarding Curry County’s fiscal stability and how the governor’s office might intervene.
King said there isn’t enough time to get C-3’s proposal on a September ballot, and that it is unknown if a county issue will be on the November ballot that the question could join. And a May 2014 ballot question, while far in the future, might get the best turnout as there are state seats up for election then.
“We’re just trying to react as quickly to circumstances as there are changes, and at the same time not let circumstances push us to where we make a mistake,” King said.