Home Rule charter on ballot

Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer January 11, 2014 10:22 am

Voters will have the chance to change the way county government works in May after supporters gathered enough valid signatures to qualify the question for the ballot in May.

According to Shelley Denney of the Curry County Elections department, proponents collected at least 617 valid signatures to get the question before the voters; the ballot question was certified this week.

 

An informational meeting explain both forms of government will be held at 1:30 Jan. 15 at Gold Beach City Hall. A separate home rule charter committee, appointed by the county to research the topic, is meeting at 3 p.m. Jan. 14 downstairs in the “blue room” of the County Courthouse Annex on Moore Street in Gold Beach.

“I was pretty confident when we had almost 800 signatures that we had the 617 (needed),” said Nesika Beach resident Carl King, who is the chief petitioner of the Home Rule Charter Initiative. “Everyone’s pleased. This will give voters a choice in how they want to see their county operate.”

King has more than 40 years experience in land use issues and is frustrated by the “general law” form of government under which the current board operates, saying creating a home rule charter would be more efficient for daily goings-on of county operations.

“Most people don’t understand how county government operates, so we really have to provide a civics course,” he said. “County Civics 101, Civics 102, Civics 103. …”

He’s only half joking.

“County Civics 101,” the first part of next Wednesday’s discussion, will outline how general law government is supposed to operate. King will then outline how it works, in reality, at the local county government level. The third will show how, in his opinion, county government would be more efficient under a home rule charter.

The meeting is also being held to establish various committees, including a political action group, and those for fundraising, promotional materials and educational events.

Currently, the county departments are divided among the three commissioners to whom they serve as liaisons. The commissioners can only meet as a majority, meaning that even two of them getting together to discuss county issues must be declared and publicly posted as a public meeting.

That, King said, makes meaningful discussion impossible, unless they hold numerous public meetings to bandy about ideas on issues facing the county.

What King is irked about lately is that each county commissioner plans to meet privately with their respective liaison department heads to discuss employee layoffs. Later, the commissioners will meet, in public, to discuss what their respective department heads suggested and determine what to do from there.

The county faces a $3.5 million shortfall in its general fund budget and two failed tax measures are forcing officials to lay off about half of its employees in upcoming months.

“I’m surprised there aren’t people yelling, ‘Public meeting violation!’ because they’re meeting one by one as part of the process to arrive at a decision,” King said. “If there were an administrator, that person could meet with department heads and make suggestions (on their behalf) to commissioners.”

A home rule charter, however, would make decision processes easier on everyone by bringing all those involved into one discussion.

The proposal voters will decide May 20 would change county government to comprise five elected county commissioners to address ordinances and legislative issues and one paid administrator to deal with the day-to-day operations of the county and each of its departments.

Such a setup allows the commissioners to concentrate on state and national issues affecting the county.

And if voters approve changing the form of government in May, it will go into effect July 1 with the existing commissioners appointing two others and hiring an administrator. An election would be held for three seats in November.

Instead of receiving a $64,000 salary and benefits, commissioners would receive a $10,000 annual stipend; the administrator’s salary would have to be determined by the board. King said to remain competitive and lure quality candidates, that salary would likely fall in the $100,000-plus range.

Pros and cons

According to a variety of websites outlining pros and cons of both, a major advantage of a general law county is that many state laws have been subjected to judicial scrutiny, so there is relatively little confusion about their application.  

County charters, by contrast, can be much more complicated and can raise many more questions about what can and cannot be done under state law. However, the greatly enhanced local authority and control over its “municipal affairs” afforded a charter county are also compelling arguments, proponents say.

Historically, counties operated under legal interpretations that confined their powers to those expressly granted to them by state law. They were unable to act in response to local needs until they received express authority from the state legislature to so act.

In Oregon, a Constitutional amendment in 1958 gave to the voters the right to determine if they should adopt charters outlining how their county governments should be organized, what powers they should have, and what procedures to follow in administering county affairs.

Citizens here have argued before about home rule charters, saying they do and don’t save municipalities money; the county charter committee will address that issue in its research, as well.

In some areas of the country, home rule has given municipalities the freedom to address non-funded state mandates, union negotiations and local dilemmas, such as rent control, that can plague government.

Proponents of a home rule charter will now create a political action committee to educate voters about the issue throughout the spring.

“From now until May 20, that’s my life,” King said. “It’s going to be fun — a lot of hard work, a lot of education to do. Now, it’s up to the voters.”