Nesika Beach resident Carl King sat comfortably in his seat in front of the standing-room-only crowd at city hall in Gold Beach Thursday night, calmly clearing up what he called misinformation about the proposed Home Rule Charter on the May 20 ballot.
But for Measure 8-76 opponent Philip Dickson, of Gold Beach, the issue was about little more than protecting one’s right to vote — and he reiterated that point over and over throughout the evening.
The Gold Beach forum was the third of three hosted by the League of Women Voters, a bi-partisan political group that works to engage citizens and get them to vote.
King, co-creator of Measure 8-76, and Dickson, a representative of the recently-formed political action committee called Protect Your Right to Vote, also squared off during a public forum in Brookings Wednesday.
The Home Rule Charter, if approved, would change the form of county government from one of general law to home rule. It would change the face of the board of commissioners, from three seats to five; those five would be part-time, volunteer citizens who receive an annual stipend of $10,000.
Additionally, a county administrator would be appointed by the commission; that person would oversee the daily operations of departments, freeing the board to dedicate their time to larger issues at the state and federal level that affect Curry County.
And four of the six county positions voters currently fill — the treasurer, assessor, clerk and surveyor — would be appointed by the administrator and approved by the commission.
Gold Beach forum
Among the issues on which King was asked to elaborate or clarify included how long it would take for a county commissioner board to be filled (two new commissioners would be appointed July 1 and up for election in November); why an administrator would be better (to free up commissioners to deal with policy) and why appointing rather than electing department heads is better (to obtain an employee with skills and experience in that field), King said.
Citizens expressed their concern that a home rule charter will allow officials to change all the county’s codes; King explained that change — only made at the ballot box — would be slow and address Curry County’s needs as issues present themselves.
“If you read the charter, it is very clear certain things do not change,” he said. “The assessor, treasurer, surveyor, clerk will remain in office for the balance of their terms. They are not being eliminated. They’ll continue doing on July 1 just what they were doing on June 30. We don’t believe this transition will cause them to be suddenly inept or untrustworthy. They won’t change just because in two years they don’t have to run for election anymore.”
The charter committee, which formed as a branch of Commissioner Susan Brown’s citizens committee to address Curry County’s fiscal problems, crafted its document out of frustration at how the county is operated — and not as a solution for its financial woes.
It is that frustration that Dickson repeatedly advised voters to avoid allowing frustration to be a factor when casting a vote on the measure, pointing out that part of the proposed charter involves giving up the right to vote for department heads.
“A lot of us are frustrated,” he admitted. “A lot of us want to see change. If you think you will wake up July 1 and we will have some kind of utopia. … Changing the system of government because you are frustrated will do more harm than good.”
He noted that the county’s own charter commission is seven months into a two-year evaluation of home rule charters to make a recommendation if home rule would be a good form of government for Curry County to pursue.
“Why rush this?” he said. “We have another year to massage this document, to study the pitfalls that will ensnare the county in legal challenges. It does not answer the problems dealing with revenue.”
More importantly to Dickson, however, is that voters would leave the placement of department heads in the hands of a county administrator, rather than the voters as is currently done.
“You will relinquish your right to vote,” he said repeatedly throughout the evening. “You will give up your right to cast a ballot. It sets us up to lose a lot of rights I’m not willing to give up.”
King pointed out that, because the charter is malleable, voters can opt to return to a system that allows them to vote in department heads.
Proponents note that hiring a qualified individual with skills and experience for those jobs is better than selecting someone in a popular election — and further added that those currently serving in those positions are likely to stay put if the measure is approved.
King pointed out that many of them have held those positions for years because they are qualified for the job, and that in past elections, those positions have gone uncontested.
Other suspicions more difficult to address include guarantees that a change in county government wouldn’t result in a batch of corrupt officials; King cited current examples in Bell, California, and Lane County in which those in power are serving time in prison for their illegal deeds.
And King pleaded with people to stop saying his informal group is “unlawful” merely because the county’s charter committee members were appointed by elected officials. He noted that the U.S. Constitution wasn’t crafted by those appointed by elected officials.
Discussion about whether Clatsop and Hood River counties — two home-rule chartered counties about the same size as Curry County — are fiscally solvent wasn’t resolved, with King saying they were happy with their system and Dickson saying the counties were in “grave condition.”
King said county commissioners chose to ignore the 19 recommendations the citizens committee crafted three years ago, so the charter committee was formed from an initial group of about 30 frustrated citizens.
“One commissioner went to the other two and they said no,” King said of requests to the board to consider the 19 recommendations. “We started it in this room with Susan Brown and about 30 people. We were ignored by our elected officials, so we went to the petition.”
Dickson said the opponents feel part-time commissioners couldn’t adequately represent voters, and that the money Curry County could offer an administrator wouldn’t lure qualified candidates to the job.
“How dare we be so bold to make this decision because we’re frustrated,” he said. “Take it back. Redo it. Polish it and we could have a document we are all proud of.”
The first question asked of King and Dickson was if mistakes made by county government were a reflection of the form of government or the people in charge.
“We wanted to avoid litigation so we crafted a document (Measure 8-76) that fits with Oregon state law and the state’s constitution,” King said. “We crafted a document for you to control your government.”
Dickson said, “There is no hurry; why push this? Give it another year.”
When asked if the form of Home Rule Charter under Measure 8-76 would cost more, the two men disagreed.
“It will grow government. It will add a paid administrator and his staff,” Dickson said.
The county, he said, would also likely pay more to hire people for the positions of assessor, treasurer, clerk and surveyor. He based that on comparisons made between elected officials’ salaries and those of appointed officials in other counties.
King said every county operates differently and “you can’t just compare numbers like that.”
He argued that Measure 8-76 will reduce county costs.
“One paid administrator with staff will still cost less than we currently pay for three full-time commissioners,” King said.
The five volunteer commissioners will be on a limited stipend, further reducing the cost of county government.
As more questions were asked, Dickson reiterated his main message.
“I will never vote for something that will remove my ability to vote in the future,” Dickson said.
He added, “I’m not against a Home Rule Charter for Curry County, but Measure 8-76 is not the way to go.”
King urged citizens to read the charter and decide for themselves.
“If you vote no, do it for the right reasons, not the wrong reasons,” King said.
The wrong reasons, he explained, were the misconceptions that the charter is unconstitutional, will result in costly litigation or take power away from the voters.
None of those are true, he said.
“Read the charter yourself and you will see that it is good for Curry County,” King said.