Like many others, we are intrigued by the home rule charter form of county government proposed by Measure 8-76 in this month’s election.
Intrigued is not sold. For a number of reasons, we recommend a no vote – not on the idea, but on this particular ballot measure. We simply believe the measure is flawed. A change in the county’s basic governing structure is too important – the potential for unintended consequences is too great – to approve this language.
In general, Measure 8-76 expands the elected county commission from three paid members to five volunteer members, each paid an annual $10,000 stipend. The commission must hire a county administrator. It does away with direct voter elections for county offices such as treasurer, surveyor, clerk and assessor.
This isn’t the first home rule charter offered in Curry County. In 2008, voters overwhelmingly rejected a similar home rule proposal that proposed five volunteer commissioners, four from districts based on school districts and one at-large.
The home rule charter idea was resurrected in 2011 by the county-appointed citizen committee asked to brainstorm solutions to the county’s dire financial situation. Some members of that committee felt the county commission was ignoring their ideas, and they drafted the home rule measure on this ballot.
Whether home rule can address the county’s financial woes is, frankly, a matter of open debate. It’s also decision that should not be in haste or out of frustration.
That haste shows in the measure itself. Proponents of Measure 8-76 admit there are gaps and problems in their charter language that will need to be “fixed later.”
Meanwhile, another home rule charter proposal is being drafted by a committee through the official (and much slower) process outlined in state law. The members are appointed from several sources, representing a variety of interests, and have access to experts who ideally can help avoid pitfalls.
The official process will reduce the chances of unforeseen mistakes, and publicly address some of the issues raised by the debate over Measure 8-76. Some examples: Could at least some of the commission seats be “zoned” so that all the geographic areas of the county are guaranteed representation? Could there be a full election cycle – primary and runoff – for voters to choose new commissioners? What should the balance be between automatic stipends and reimbursement for expenses incurred by volunteer commissioners? Is it wise to drop direct election of people for the traditional county offices such as clerk, assessor treasurer and surveyor? Are significant public decisions made in those positions, or are they “just” jobs.
Finally, proponents brazenly argue that a five-member commission would allow members to skirt open meeting laws – coming to agreements two at a time so that discussion and debate in public is less messy. That’s not the kind of government Oregon law guarantees its citizens, and we would like to see a charter proposal that upholds that same public process.
We understand the goals of those who drafted and support 8-76, and we would welcome a chance for voters to consider a well-crafted and workable home rule charter. Measure 8-76 is not it.