County committee studying home rule options

Written by Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer May 09, 2014 06:17 pm

About halfway through its first year of work, the Curry County Charter Committee is nowhere near making a decision on a recommendation as to whether Curry County should be operated under home rule.

“A lot of people ask, ‘So what are you doing?’” said committee member Janice Scanlon at a regular charter meeting this week. “They expect us to feel one way or the other.”

What they’re doing is turning over every rock, educating themselves and looking at other counties to determine if home rule is the best form of government for Curry County, she said.

The county group — not to be confused with the citizen’s group that got Measure 8-76 on the May 20 ballot — has not yet taken a stance on the question and doesn’t expect to for some time to come, said committee chairman Larry Ball.

“It started at a point that, other than those committee members (who have been) involved in politics, it’s been a whirlwind education as to what the county’s all about,” he said. “It’s been a very steep learning curve.”

“Official” or “legal”

The nine-member county committee — currently short one — includes four citizens selected by the county commissioners (Ball, Sam Scaffo, Ted Freeman and Perri Rask), four selected by State Rep. Wayne Krieger and Sen. Jeff Kruse (Norma Fitzgerald, Philip Dickson, Roger Liles and Andrea Thomas), and the last (Brian Little) selected by those eight.

In the past six months, Dickson resigned and Terry Hanscomb was appointed in his place. Sam Scaffo resigned and was replaced by Janice Scanlon. Perri Rask recently resigned; county commissioners are seeking his replacement.

Because of these appointments by elected officials, opponents of Measure 8-76 often say the county group is the “only lawfully appointed” committee investigating home rule.

But Carl King, one of the authors of the initiative and regular attendee at the county’s charter committee meetings, pointed out in a county charter meeting this week that a group of citizens meeting in someone’s living room — as his Citizens Charter Committee did — crafting an initiative and getting it on the ballot is completely legal.

Proponents like to point out that that’s the way the U.S. Constitution was drafted and it, like the proposed home rule charter likely will be, had to have amendments immediately adopted to address shortcomings and make it work well.

“This is not the only legal way to recognize a charter,” King said. “When proponents say they are the only lawful committee, it implies we’re unlawful, and that’s not true. You don’t want those code words in your letter (to the editor) that give the impression that you’re buying into their statements.”

The committee agreed, reiterating that their job is to remain neutral in their studies.

Many in the public, however, think their job is to draft a charter — a task that, if the group determines is best to pursue, may or may not be ordered to do.

Their sole purpose is to learn about home rule charters and make a recommendation to the county commissioners whether a home rule charter would be the best form of government under which Curry County should operate.

“This is not an attempt to influence the voting (on May 20’s home rule charter measure) by any means,” Ball said. “It’s a difficult and challenging issue to get your head around.”

Ready … set … go

The Association of Oregon Counties gave the committee a 130-page document outlining home rule charters — their history, state constitutional requirements and implementations, how counties are reorganized after a change in government rule and court opinions regarding charters and their amendments. It also includes what is allowed under the law, comparisons of some home-rule counties and other suggestions.

The local group is using it as their operating document, particularly as the suggestions have proved to be beneficial, Ball said.

“Interviewing department heads and elected officials to get an idea how the county runs, how everyone’s job runs, how each department is budgeted, their history. …” Ball listed. “It’s a lot more involved and all-encompassing, as far as the services it provides and how it is funded. A big part of this whole process has been such an eye-opener about how the county operates and the extent to which the county in its operations impacts every citizen. I had no idea.”

Each committee member took a home rule-chartered county in Oregon to study, he said. They have gone to those counties, talked with elected officials and others and have asked how home rule has worked for them.

The committee has examined the proposed home rule charter that was defeated here in 2008, and Ball has reviewed the Coos County proposal that failed in 2012.

“We’re asking, ‘How’s it working out for you?’ the pluses and minuses, unintended consequences, the number of times it was amended,” Ball said. “And they are not at all alike.”

Committee members, both individually and as a group, were unable to answer if they were leaning for or against a home rule charter in a straw poll three months ago.

“That pointed out that we still have a long way to go to be comfortable making suggestions about everything,” Ball said. “Whether we should have a county administrator or no county administrator, or elected versus appointed (officials), three versus five (county commissioners).”

May 20th’s vote

The election May 20 could have a major impact on the group, particularly if the ballot measure asking voters to go to a home rule form of government is approved.

Ball said if Measure 8-76 passes, it is likely the county charter group will stay intact to offer advice to county commissioners about changes the guiding document — essentially, a constitution for county operations — might need. Josephine County made 12 changes to its home rule charter, Ball said, adding that changes are inevitable in a “living document” that is altered to reflect the needs of the society it serves.

If it fails, the committee will continue its work, including holding public forums to educate the public about what they’ve learned and solicit comment. If the group’s recommendation is to pursue a home rule charter, it is likely they will be asked to draft it, as well.

“We (will have) learned from some of the more contentious issues,” Ball said. “These are areas we need to look at and study and try to get right the first time, should we recommend a charter.”