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District debate

Should county commission seats remain at large, or be divided into districts?
by: Anthony roberts The four current county             commissioners live in near the Willamette River and there is currently a vacancy on the board. The BCC also must review its expansion to a five-member body, which was approved in 2007.

Should there be five full-time county commissioners, all elected by voters throughout Clackamas County? The question will soon be relevant again.

When voters expanded the Board of County Commissioners from three to five in 2007, the ordinance stipulated that the commission shall review the changes before June 1 of this year. The vote also made the positions nonpartisan and elected on a countywide basis, rather than by district.

The complexities of the county's governance structure are a subject of some passion for Linda Malone, mayor of rural Sandy for 17 years until January, who lamented that currently all of the county commissioners live in the more populated areas near the Willamette River. Malone, who wants to fill an upcoming vacancy on the commission, argues that it's difficult for urban dwellers to assess the priorities of rural residents and be effective advocates for their special requests.

'It's not a large population outside of the urban metro area, but we have a different perspective when it comes to getting federal funding for our large amounts of natural resources and infrastructure needs,' she said.

Malone's solution: Divide the county into three districts of equal population, two small ones for the western urban areas and a large one for the rural southeast. Although she proposes that all five of the commissioners would remain elected countywide, three of the seats would then require representatives who live in the designated areas.

Commissioner Jim Bernard pointed to the current disadvantage of more expensive countywide campaigns for candidates and argued that he could just as easily see four commissioners elected by district with the chair elected countywide.

Debate begins

The big debate will come soon as to whether commissioners should reside in various parts of the county.

At a work session last week, commissioners worried about delaying the review until May, during which time the board has traditionally been focused on preparing the next fiscal year's budget. The board will try to agree on whether to continue the current governance structure by the end of April, although a date hasn't been set yet to discuss the issue in a public meeting.

'I do hope that the commissioners take a good long look at dividing the county into districts rather than having all the commissioners elected district wide,' said Milwaukie attorney Greg Chaimov, who vice-chaired a committee to study the issue in 2007.

The 13-member task force had found that there was more support for districts the farther east and south the question was asked. Although the task force recommended keeping the 2007 changes simple at first, it envisioned examination of 'districts as a secondary step to be undertaken once the five-member board has become an idea voters are comfortable with.'

County Chair Charlotte Lehan said she could argue the issue of districting either way and is still weighing which side she'll come down on.

'It takes more effort to represent everyone when its countywide, but it's definitely doable,' Lehan said. 'The disadvantage of districting is that you have a smaller pool from which to draw qualified applicants.'

The county is currently accepting applications for the seat that Lehan vacated when she took Lynn Peterson's place as chair on March 17. Malone plans to apply by April 1; the applications are due April 13.

'It's going to weigh heavily for me where these people are from, but I also think just because you live there doesn't mean you represent the community,' Bernard said.

If changes were made to the county's governance structure, they wouldn't be effective until after the newly appointed commissioner's partial term ends in 2013.

'If I'm lucky enough to be appointed to the commission, and they decide to go with districts, I would hope that they would make my seat (#4) the one that represents East County, because otherwise I'd have to run for another seat in 2012,' Malone said.

Commissioners have agreed to give special consideration to East County candidates for the position, but promise this preference wouldn't be a litmus test for an especially qualified candidate from the more populated areas. Former Commissioner Bob Austin was appointed by the board for his background in natural resources as mayor of Estacada, which sits on the edge of Mt. Hood National Forest.

In response to concerns that the county is represented by urban areas to the west, Bernard pointed out that Austin's opponent from the November election, Paul Savas, is from the unincorporated Oak Grove area. Commissioners are nevertheless considering the two qualities separately.

'Unincorporated and rural are sometimes the same thing, but they're not always the same thing,' Commissioner Ann Lininger said.

Fewer politicians?

Lehan laughed when asked whether the county could get by with fewer commissioners or with fewer hours allotted to each commissioner. The expansion of the board was a primary goal of the task force in 2007.

'I don't see how they did it with just three people, because we're on the run constantly, and I wish that it were only a 40-hour-a-week job-it's more like a 24/7 job,' Lehan said.

'Having five has definitely made us more of a player both regionally and federally,' Bernard added.

Chaimov also thinks that expanding the board has benefited county constituents. The commissioners themselves were prohibited from talking one-on-one outside of public meetings due to state quorum rules.

'It's nice to see that the changes have permitted the commissioners to be more active in their community and to have better deliberations before making their decisions,' Chaimov said. 'We didn't have enough people minding the shop with three commissioners for such a large population and the size of Clackamas County.'