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Home Rule charters: What’s the difference?

The home rule charter committee created by the Curry County commissioners — not to be confused with the Citizens Charter Committee that recently got its charter proposal on the May ballot — held its first meeting Tuesday to discuss, in part, how to ensure the public knows the two groups are fundamentally different.

The commissioner-created group was formed to explore home rule charters throughout the state and make a recommendation to the board whether to pursue changing the current form of government. 

The Citizens Charter Committee, on the other hand, was designed specifically to get a home rule charter question on the ballot, and it did, qualifying last week for the May 20 election.

“People are going to be confused,” said Larry Ball, who headed up the first meeting of the county-formed committee in Gold Beach.

The details - C3

The Citizens Charter Committee — or C3 — is a subcommittee of the Fiscal Independence Committee which was formed by County Commissioner Susan Brown to address the financial woes facing the county.

Most of those on the citizen’s group do not believe changing the form of government will solve the county’s fiscal problems, but maintain it will make county government more efficient and effective.

Carl King, a retired attorney living in Nesika Beach who crafted the C3 document, spoke to the county committee how his group put together their proposal, how they researched it and why they think it is the best fit for Curry County.

The following day, during C3’s first political action committee meeting, he outlined how a home rule charters can work and led discussion on how that group should educate voters about the ballot question.

The measure the citizen’s group got on the May ballot asks Curry County voters to change the existing form of county government from one of general law to home rule.

Specifically, this home rule proposal, if approved, would mean the county would have a board of five commissioners who would deal with overall governmental issues, notably at the legislative level. Those commissioners would be paid an annual stipend of $10,000.

“We (C3) had no discussion about whether we should give county commissioners any salary as full-time employees,” King told the county committee Tuesday. “But there was a huge amount of discussion about whether to give any stipend.”

Additionally, the charter calls for a full-time, paid administrator, who would oversee the day-to-day operations of the county.

“No one came in without the idea of including an administrator,” King said. “It (the ballot initiative) is designed not to micromanage the county, (but has) the goal of having the most efficient and effective administration and management.”

C3’s ballot measure also turns all elected positions except the sheriff — clerk, recorder, assessor, surveyor and treasurer — into jobs the administrator fills like any other county positions.

Making the change

Transitioning to a home rule charter, if it is approved, would entail keeping the three current commissioners, who would hire an interim administrator immediately after the election.

The two other commissioners would be elected in the November election. From there on, three commissioner seats would come up for election in presidential election years; the other two seats, in the off years. And all elections would be countywide, not by the district or position, as is currently done.

After the November elections, the five commissioners would hire a permanent administrator.

The C3 group believes its proposal would better enable commissioners to talk with one another without creating a quorum — and thus having their discussion a legal public meeting — and free up commissioners to conduct business at a higher legislative level.

“They can’t even talk with each other unless it’s a public meeting,” King said. “If you attend public meetings, they don’t talk about much. The three sit there and really don’t get down to talking about management, about what’s going on. You don’t hear those discussions.”

These issues and many others will be among those the county charter group discusses in the next 16 months as it researches existing home rule charters, learns how effective they might be and if they could work for Curry County.

The group will also likely discuss the home rule charter question voters rejected in 2008.

County’s idea

The county group was appointed after the current board of county commissioners opted not to cut their own salaries nor take one of the Citizens Committee’s recommendations to hire an administrator for daily operations, said Terry Hanscam, a former Curry County commissioner.

The nine-member board watched an Association of Oregon Counties video about county government, and solicited King’s thoughts on how the C3 committee decided to write the ballot measure, what it specifically contains, and how a transition from a general law government to a home rule charter would occur.

“All we’ve got to go on is the opinions, experiences and challenges other counties have had,” Ball said of the challenges he believes they face in upcoming months.

County attorney Jerry Herbage told the county charter group that few come into county commissioner jobs knowing how the county works.

“In Oregon law, most elected positions have no minimum requirements for the job,” he said. You learn a lot by being in the position. There is a learning curve, and it is not insignificant. How things are done in the private sector are really quite different.”

County committee member Bryan Little said he was curious how Curry County could afford to hire an administrator; the average annual salary for such an employee in Oregon is about $100,000 to $120,000, plus benefits.

“I’ve seen port administration, city administrators, and a lot of other administrators,” he said. “They ended up suing who they work for, ended up in jail or had a lot of other problems. We don’t get what we think we’re getting a lot of times.”

King noted that, if the C3 measure is approved by voters, the county charter group could remain intact and meet to offer advice to the commissioners regarding how the charter should be fine-tuned over time.

The C3 group researched the nine home rule charters in Oregon, notably one from Hood River County — research the county committee will continue in the next months.

King pointed out that five of those nine counties have paid administrators. In the 27 remaining counties that operate under general law, 20 — or 72 percent — have an administrator.

He also added that any monetary savings would not be realized by the reduction in the county commissioners’ salaries — even though that would be in excess of $100,000 — but in efficiencies in an administrator overseeing of the county’s departments.

The county group agreed that, in its discussions and research, it would not berate past or current board members and would try to refrain from getting into heated arguments.

“We’re going to be dealing with hot-button issues,” Ball said. “We have a small gallery now, a civil group. But it may not always be the case.”

The next meeting of the county charter committee will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. Feb. 4 downstairs in the County Annex on Moore Street in Gold Beach. Discussion will include what a home rule charter is designed to be; County Accountant Gary Short will also address the group. The meeting is open to the public. 

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