The poisonous political atmosphere that once infected the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners has all but disappeared.
In a mere eight months, county Chairman Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Jeff Cogen have proven to be the right people to shift county policymakers' focus away from personality disputes among commissioners and onto needed outcomes for citizens.
But as local citizens look forward to next year's elections - when three more county commissioner seats will be up for grabs - they must choose wisely to make sure county leadership doesn't regress. Voters can do this by electing competent, cooperative leaders to replace retiring Commissioners Lisa Naito, Maria Rojo de Steffey and Lonnie Roberts.
And by January 2009, we hope a fully re-energized board of commissioners can move forward and deal with important issues facing the county and its citizens.
Dealing with jails, bridges and the needy
Unfortunately, for too long the news about Multnomah County has been dominated by things that have gone wrong or are getting worse, including the county's revolving jail doors and its ongoing inability to open the $58 million Wapato jail. Along the way, citizens grew weary of hearing about commissioners' petty political battles.
But what was lost in all of this negativity is the fact that Multnomah County provides essential services affecting the everyday lives of county citizens - and there certainly is room for improving those services.
The county is responsible for prosecuting and jailing criminals. It takes care of the elderly and low-income families by providing needed health and human services. It is charged with maintaining almost all of the bridges over the Willamette River, including the outdated Sellwood Bridge - a responsibility that seems especially relevant in the aftermath of the Minnesota bridge collapse.
These services - and many more - don't come cheap for county taxpayers. In addition to a property tax levy that equals $1,085 per year on a $250,000 home, the county levies a business income tax and an additional library levy. Right now, commissioners are in the early stages of studying a possible public-safety levy to be placed on the 2008 ballot.
Big names and money not enough
Plenty of candidates appear interested in the three commissioner seats. Among them are familiar faces - including former House Speaker Karen Minnis, Gresham Police Chief Carla Piluso and former state Rep. Deborah Kafoury.
It's encouraging to see the early attention for the county commission, but what's needed in this campaign is something far greater than simple name familiarity. Most relevant to voters would be a discussion of how the county is going to improve service delivery even as county officials say they are facing a $20 million to $30 million deficit in every budget year for the foreseeable future.
How will Wapato be opened? How can commissioners enhance the business climate in the county by further refining the county's business income tax? What is the ultimate solution for the problem of aging bridges and almost no money to fix them?
To adequately deal with these and other issues, the county doesn't need the same tired discussions or personality disputes. It needs fresh ideas, strong communication and collaborative leadership - and that's what citizens must look for as they begin to evaluate the candidate field that may run next year for Multnomah County's Board of Commissioners.
Portland Tribune editorial board
The Tribune publishes editorials on local and regional issues every Tuesday and Friday.
• Steve Clark - president, Portland Tribune and Community Newspapers Inc.
• Dwight Jaynes -executive editor, Portland Tribune
• Mark Garber - vice president, Community Newspapers Inc.