It's true that Multnomah County Commissioner Lonnie Roberts isn't the most engaged administrator. In the past six years, he has relied on his chief of staff, Gary Walker, to run his office.
Now that Walker is leaving - and taking an unseemly $35,000 bonus with him - many people wonder just how Roberts will get along and whether East County will have effective representation on the county board. We share those concerns, in large part because the Roberts-Walker combination that's now dissolving has been more successful in advancing East County's agenda than some folks may realize.
It was during Roberts' tenure that the issue of equity for East County came to the forefront. Roberts and his staff pushed hard to get equal distribution of county dollars for the east metro area. The Portland-dominated board of commissioners had ignored the movement of people and poverty out of Portland and into East County. Until Roberts made enough noise about funding disparities, nothing was done. Now, funding for programs such as SUN schools is more equalized, but the imbalance remains for many county services.
Roberts and Walker also pushed for a justice center in East County - another issue of parity - and the facility is moving forward. The other signature accomplishment was approval of funding for a long-overdue Troutdale library branch.
These wins for East County can be attributed to Walker's tenacity and his inside knowledge of county politics. With Walker gone and Tom Mack taking over as chief of staff, we hope that Roberts' office continues to insist that East County gets its fair share.
A recent article in the Sunday Oregonian depicted Roberts as keeping short office hours, as out of touch with the details of county government and as a puppet vote for Walker. We hope that Roberts increases his presence, improves his work ethic and advocates even harder for East County in the final 21 months of his term.
But the more significant question is whether East County will be prepared in 2008 to elect an energetic, involved and collaborative leader to replace Roberts, who has served the maximum two terms allowed. Several people - including former Gresham City Councilor Jacquenette McIntire and Mt. Hood Community College board member Dave Shields - are rumored to be interested in the job. We'd also like to encourage interest from others, such as Gresham City Councilor Paul Warr-King, former Gresham Councilor David Widmark and Metro Councilor Rod Park.
East County hasn't necessarily suffered under Roberts' leadership, who served during trying times at the county. But in less than two years, voters must select a new commissioner - someone who has both Roberts' political popularity and Walker's everyday effectiveness. Now is the time to begin looking for that person.