A political action committee called Protect our Right to Vote was formed earlier this month to advocate against Measure 8-76, the question on the May 20 ballot asking voters to change the form of county government here.
The PAC is headed by Phil Dickson of Gold Beach — he served on the Citizens Committee that developed 19 recommendations as to how to address Curry County’s fiscal problems — and Sandra Ensley of Brookings, who is listed as the treasurer.
County Commissioners David Itzen’s and David Brock Smith’s names both appear on state documentation authorizing the PAC, but only because Itzen is up for reelection in May and Smith because his campaign report is still open from the last election, Smith said.
According to the Secretary of State’s office, even if the two commissioners were in charge of the PAC, they would not be in violation of state or quorum laws. None of the three commissioners are in favor of Measure 8-76.
As of Tuesday, cash contributions to the PAC totaled $3,100; cash contributions to the PAC supporting the measure totaled $4,828.
The measure in question would change the form of county government in Curry County from one of general law to one of home rule.
As proposed, the county would have a five-member, volunteer, part-time board of commissioners and a paid, full-time administrator. The administrator would address the day-to-day issues with the county’s 20 departments, thus freeing up commissioners to deal with the overarching legislative issues that affect the county.
Another component — from which the PAC got its “Right to Vote” motto — is that county officials that are currently elected would instead be appointed by the administrator, with approval from the board of commissioners. Elected officials include the clerk, treasurer, surveyor and assessor.
It’s that issue that most irks Smith.
“The biggest concern of mine is in not electing the clerk — not electing the person in charge of all the elections,” he said. “If someone’s hired and not accountable directly to citizens, but working under a manager, that could invite corruption. How would you feel about the commissioners counting votes? I like that they’re (currently) accountable to the people. ”
“We’re educated enough to know who we want in a position or not,” he said. “The country was founded on those principles (right to vote); to have them taken away … I’m not real big on that.”
The proponents of Measure 8-76 have been active, holding forums throughout the county to get their word out. But nothing — until now — has been formalized in opposition. Signs have been sprouting like so many lilies throughout the county, information will appear in the League of Women Voter’s election pamphlet, the district attorney has written a “white paper,” and forums will be held next week.
“It’s such a small community; it doesn’t take much,” Dickson said of educating people. “Voters need to consider: do you really want to give that right up? It’s such a big issue.”
And it’s not merely the “right to vote” issue that has opponents worried.
Smith and Dickson say changing the form of government doesn’t solve the county’s problems, which are primarily fiscal.
“This is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire,” Dickson said. “It doesn’t change the fact we’re broke. Until that problem’s solved, it’s just moving paper around. Rushing into a vote because we’re all frustrated with the way things are going might not be best plan of action.”
There is plenty of misinformation among citizens, as well.
Opponents say the idea for the measure was the result of the Citizens Committee, which made 19 recommendations about how commissioners could fix the county’s problems. Others, however, note that the issue was merely listed at the top of the list and that no recommendations were prioritized.
“I was on the committee that recommended it, but we argued about it,” Dickson said. “Personally, I’m not one to turn over an elected position. I don’t want to give up the right to vote. My grandpa always said, ‘Hang onto that right, Phil. Hang onto it as long as you can.’”
There is also the debate about the county saving money. Brookings City Manager Gary Milliman said the county would save almost $80,000 by going to a council/manager form of government.
Currently, the three county commissioners get paid $182,000 total; under the home rule charter, the five commissioners would each receive a $10,000 annual stipend, and the administrator would likely earn at least $120,000.
“I stepped away from my business, hired two people; I don’t take a salary,” Smith said. “I’m putting 60 hours a week in the county. A county manager is not going to alleviate the 60 hours I put in for the county. (As an unpaid commissioner) I would not be able to put in those hours, as I have a mortgage, just like citizens. I would have to go back to my business and work it 50 hours a week.”
District Attorney Everett Dial wrote a three-page “white paper” regarding the charter, in which he noted the savings would be about 2.6 percent of the general fund budget, and that would be reduced by the salary of the county administrator.
Smith wonders what kind of applicant that relatively low pay would attract. According to the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization that informs citizens about upcoming ballot issues, the average salary of county administrators in Oregon is $168,000.
“Who can you attract to do that job?” Smith queried. “You get what you pay for.”
A stipulation in the charter gives the commissioners 30 days to appoint an interim manager — another bone of contention with Smith.
“We’ve been looking for a roadmaster for six months,” he noted. “If the proponents of the charter thought the most important piece of the charter is to hire a county manager, they why would it only allow 30 days to hire a qualified applicant? You can’t even get it out on the listserve and start interviewing applicants in that time.”
Charter won’t work
Smith says the document is fatally flawed.
The way it is written, the board of commissioners would not be fully staffed until Jan. 1, 2017, due to overlapping appointment and election dates. And only then, the charter reads, would the full board appoint a full-time administrator.
The positions held by Smith and (Commissioner) Susan Brown would be two of the three positions up for election in November 2016, he wrote. It also means that the position held by Commissioner Itzen is one of two up for election in November 2014.
“This would leave the county in the unusual position of having four commissioners following the November 2014 election, through all of 2015 and 2016,” Dial wrote. “Having four commissioners could result in a deadlocked board. Should two of the four commissioners resign, the charter is not clear on how the board would function, given that the charter specifies that a quorum consists of three commissioners. The board simply could not function.”
“This charter was written hastily outside a public process,” Smith said. “We have a citizens (charter) committee — a lawfully-appointed committee — looking at all versions of a charter for Curry County to make a recommendation to the citizens. I’m not against a charter at all; I think it can be a good thing for citizens. But I am against 8-76.”
In his “white paper,” Dial notes that, while the commissioners control the budgets of the elected officials — treasurer, surveyor, assessor and clerk — they do not have the authority to tell them how to run their departments.
Under the proposal, the county administrator would hire people to fill those positions and, in essence, become their supervisor, Dial wrote.
County officials indicated they’re not sure they need an administrator, as County Counsel Jerry Herbage has been acting as the de facto manager since 1987.
“We could hire a county manager tomorrow if we wanted to,” Smith said, adding that the board doesn’t feel one is needed. “He (Herbage) is the risk manager for the county, he addresses all legal issues with respect to county business including labor and employment law.
“I would argue that it’s a better form of government than the city of Brookings, because not only do they have a city manager, but they have to pay for the city attorney,” he added. “We get the best of both worlds in one man.”
Dickson said a charter form of county government could be the way to go, but there’s no reason to adopt one so quickly.
“If someone can show me how it’s going to make next Monday morning better, I’d be a lot more interested in looking at that,” Dickson said. “But there is no silver bullet. I just don’t think it’s the right time. I hope the folks in Curry County take the time. What’s another year?”