Gold Beach High School government teacher Kevin Smith gave his students a brief lesson in how government works — “or doesn’t,” he said — by bringing them to a county commissioner meeting Wednesday.
And the teens outlined their concerns about issues the current commission board is addressing, notably the proposed division of beds between Curry General Hospital in Gold Beach and Curry Medical Center in Brookings and the upcoming home rule charter ballot question.
“These issues have so much bearing on young people’s lives,” Swift said. “Like all young people, they have come concerns about some things going on in the county. So I said, ‘Let’s go down and listen to them.’”
Last week, Swift said, the students dissected the May 20 ballot question — and he encouraged the commissioners to “think wisely about what you support.” Students first asked questions about the hospital, but the majority of time was spent outlining concerns Swift said the students had regarding the home rule charter.
Home rule charter
The May 20 ballot question asks voters to change the form of county government from general law to that of a home rule enforced by a charter that can be changed as the county grows.
Specifically, it would entail having a full-time paid administrator to handle day-to-day matters at the departmental level to free up five, part-time, volunteer county commissioners to oversee legislative issues and other matters that affect the area.
“We have major Constitutional issues with it,” Swift said of the charter. “It seems to fly in the face of some of the principles our country and Constitution are founded on.”
He said the students found issues of popular sovereignty, federalism, separation of powers, checks and balances, judicial review and limited government among its flaws.
Swift said having the five commissioners elected by popular vote, rather than by districts within the county, could easily result in a concentration of power by Brookings residents.
“Power corrupts,” Swift said. “All you have to do is look at Washington, D.C., and understand that.”
Members of the Citizens Home Rule Charter Committee who crafted the document, used elements of other Oregon home rule charter counties. There is debate as to whether those counties are operating well under those charters — or indeed, if it is the charters that are failing the counties.
Commissioner David Itzen mentioned earlier in the meeting that Brookings feels it is becoming “the big dog on the block” and is trying to usurp county operations.
In past meetings between the county and city council, heated discussions have ensued surrounding the city’s desire to annex the airport, the county seeking city support for property tax hikes, the alleged desire of the city to annex Harbor, consolidation of 911 services and providing medical services to a community that isn’t part of — and therefore doesn’t pay into — the hospital district.
“I’m glad you brought up the declaration of war by that community down there,” Swift said. “While Brookings should have more representation (on a five-board commission), they should not have all of it. It flies in the face of popular sovereignty.”
He said his students have issues with the separation of powers he felt would be lost within a home rule charter.
“It would take away our ability to elect officials,” he said of the charter provision that requires the administrator to hire those who currently serve in elected positions, such as the clerk and recorder, treasurer, surveyor and assessor. “It smells of bad news. It’s a chance for graft, bribery and (a lack of ethics). Those are really ugly words, but look at the state and federal levels, and you know they exist.”
He said his students were suspicious that in implementing a charter that mandates the administrator hire people who were formally elected to their jobs, they are eliminating citizens’ say in who they want to lead them.
By changing the rules to appoint, rather than elect, all but the district attorney and sheriff’s positions, it would compromise the checks and balances guaranteed in the Constitution, Swift added.
“Now, the assessor and the clerk work for the people who voted for them, not the people who hired them,” he said. “Guaranteed, this will end up in the Oregon Supreme Court.”
Swift also noted that, under the proposed charter, even though there would be five unpaid commissioners, the cost of an administrator would far exceed what the three elected leaders are collectively paid today — about $64,000 a year, plus benefits.
“How are you going to attract anyone worthwhile to take on these problems?” he said of those who might run for volunteer positions. “I’m uncomfortable with part-time people working for the county.”
All three commissioners, in what Itzen called a “rare” moment of unanimity in their opposition to the home rule charter, agreed that the document is “fatally flawed.”
Itzen spoke at a Brookings City Council meeting last week where he said the reception was “less than pleasant,” about hiring a firm to mediate and improve relations between the city and the county. The city declined to participate.
“What you see in the so-called Brookings leadership, the Brookings mayor and council, may not reflect the intentions of its residents,” he said. “It might be quite different. The people I talk to are aghast at the mayor’s statements; they do not regard him as reflecting their position.”