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To expand or not to expand: Thats the question before Clackamas voters

Clackamas County voters will decide this fall whether to increase the number of positions on the county board of commissioners from three to five, as well as a number of changes in how the board operates.

Commissioners voted unanimously earlier this month to forward a ballot measure, which would effect those changes, to the Nov. 6 ballot, pursuant to Oregon law.

'We respect and honor the task force that recommended this ordinance, and are moving ahead and asking the voters what they think,' said Commission Chair Martha Schrader. 'The citizens of the county need the opportunity to weigh in on this important issue.'

The new ordinance - which would enact the first reorganization of the board in several decades - was the result of four months of work by a county-sanctioned group of citizen volunteers. The task force was convened 10 times and met with 17 civic organizations and a number of individuals across the county to make its final recommendations to the board, and those recommendations became the framework for the upcoming ballot measure.

Should voters approve the ordinance, they would see the commission expanded from three members to five in 2009. Board members would be elected by position numbers, and voters, not the commissioners, would elect the board chair as a separate office.

'As one of the largest counties in the state we need a five-member commission to give us the firepower to compete in the regional, state and federal arenas,' said vice-chair Lynn Peterson, Lake Oswego. 'Change is never easy but it is vital for Clackamas County to take this first step toward a larger commission.'

Both Schrader and Commissioner Bill Kennemer are up for re-election next year. They, along with candidates for their positions and the two newly created positions, would run in the November 2008 elections. Peterson's term expires in 2010.

All of the positions would be four-year terms, except for one of the newly created seats, which would start out with a two-year term to stagger the number of commissioners up for election at one time.

Debate over nonpartisanship

Under the proposed ordinance, county commissioners would no longer be partisan offices.

'For the most part, when the issue was addressed at community meetings, people were overwhelmingly in favor of a nonpartisan board,' said Cheri McGinnis, staff assistant to the board.

Leaders from the local Republican and Democratic parties were quick to testify against the non-partisan provisions of the ordinance at recent public hearings.

'We're not happy about it,' said Susan Gates of the Oregon Trail (House District 52) Democrats. 'We understand (the commissioners') points that having nonpartisan commissioners would avoid some of the bickering, but that's not the real world anyway.'

Instead, Gates and her Republican counterparts argue that removing partisan labels would complicate matters on the board.

Today, if a commissioner resigns mid-term, that commissioner's party appoints a replacement. Under the ordinance, the commissioners would choose the appointee.

'Suddenly, the ability to replace commissioners is in the hands of someone who wasn't elected to do that,' Gates said.

She also argued that partisanship would continue, despite the absence of labels.

'Nobody would know where people are coming from and who recruited them,' Gates said. 'There will be recruiting' by the parties, she argued, only now people won't know who is behind the candidates.

Local Republicans were unavailable for comment.

No districts

There was 'quite a bit of discussion' over whether the new board would be elected by districts or by Clackamas County residents at large, according to a county press release; but ultimately, the board decided to let every county resident vote for every candidate.

According to the citizens task force recommendations, districts were not recommended because 'districts would be complicated to explain to voters, and the task force has sought to recommend as simple and straightforward a proposal as possible.'

The task force document continues, 'Voters that do not fully understand a referred measure tend to vote 'No' … (and) it is of paramount importance to get to a five-commissioner board in any form.'

Kennemer said he had 'some reservations' about the decision not to create voting districts, and said he believed it would 'continue the escalation of campaign costs' in the county.

But the passage of the ordinance wouldn't end the discussion; the ordinance provides for a review of the new framework after two years, so county leaders can determine whether changes need to be made, and whether issues such as part-time vs. full-time, partisan vs. non-partisan and districts vs. at-large voting need to get another look.

'This gives the commissioners room to rethink (the ordinance) after two years,' McGinnis said. 'If residents think we should look at districts or other issues at that time, we'll look at them again.'

Full-time or part-time?

Today, all three commissioners are full-time, and they make $72,000 to $73,000 a year, plus benefits. With the potential of two more commissioners being added to the mix, it remains to be seen how they will be compensated, and whether or not the board members would be full- or part-time.

'The ordinance is essentially moot on this point,' McGinnis said. 'If you want to run for county commissioner, at this point, you don't really know if you're going to be part-time or full-time.'

That could affect people who have other jobs or own businesses, she said.

The task force recommended that all five commissioners be full-time employees, arguing that the difference between full-time and part-time is only 1/10 of 1 percent of the $950 million budget - 'a small investment' that would more than pay for itself by 'increasing the county's capacity and presence in federal, state and regional forums at which public moneys are distributed.'

Despite that argument, the commissioners ultimately decided to let its compensation commission make decisions about how much time the new leaders are expected to work.

'(Although) our lack of clarity of the cost of this change is troublesome, I do feel that this is an important discussion our county needs to have,' Kennemer said.

Marcus Hathcock is editor of the Sandy Post.