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Our Opinion: Tweaks to county charter are in order

Our editorial positions on Multnomah County Charter amendments -

LOGO - Pamplin Media GroupIf there’s an upside to the messy resignation of former Sheriff Dan Staton this summer, it’s that it got a lot of people thinking about how we hire our top gun in Multnomah County.

Luckily, a group of dedicated volunteers has been looking at that exact question — along with a few more — for the past several months.

Every six years, the county charter (the local equivalent of a state constitution) is reviewed by 15 county residents selected by local lawmakers. The November ballot will include five recommendations from the 2016 Multnomah County Charter Review Committee. We’re supporting two of them.

Measure 26-181

Extend county term limits


Multnomah County’s current charter limits elected county officials (commissioners, county chair, sheriff and auditor) to two consecutive four-year terms.

In general, we’re not big fans of term limits, but voters seem to have mixed views about them. Since the Oregon Supreme Court struck down state legislative term limits in 2002, voters have twice defeated attempts to bring them back. The most recent effort was in 2006, when Multnomah County voters rejected legislative term limits by a 2-1 margin.

However, when given the chance to abolish term limits for the county’s elected positions in 2010, those same voters declined to do so.

The Charter Review Committee is recommending a middle ground — keep the term limits, but extend them to three terms, or 12 years in office.

To us, this seems like a classic solution in search of a problem. We can’t think of a single case where county operations were harmed because term limits forced an elected county official out of office. In fact, in the past 20 years, numerous county officials have opted out of their jobs long before the eight-year limit would have affected them.

What’s more, the county commissioner posts are plum political jobs. While state legislators earn a part-time salary of under $23,000 a year, (plus per-diem payments for each day the Legislature is in session,) Multnomah County commissioners are full-time employees and make about $100,000 a year plus benefits. Dangling another four-year term in front of them could lead to commissioners overstaying their welcome.

If this passes, we won’t complain. But we don’t see any compelling reason to support Measure 26-181.

Measure 26-182

Remove resignation requirement


As noted above, being on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners is supposed to be a full-time job. At some point, those writing the county charter decided they didn’t want commissioners getting paid for their county duties while they are distracted by running for another elective office. So, they required that county commissioners resign their post if they seek another office. That’s why Commissioner Jules Bailey had to leave his previous commissioner job to run for Portland mayor.

We’re not sure the overall policy works as intended, but we agree there’s one case where it definitely doesn’t make sense — when commissioners want to run for county chair.

It’s not surprising that four of the last six people elected as Multnomah County chair had served as county commissioners. Holding one of the four commissioner posts is about the best experience you can have if you’re seeking the job of chair.

Measure 28-182 would amend the charter to allow commissioners who are in the middle of their four-year terms to run for chair without stepping down. Campaigning for the chair position might create some internal tensions, but it wouldn’t be as distracting as running for a job at a different level of government. It also could encourage more candidates to seek the post.

For those reasons, we urge a “yes” vote on Measure 26-182.

Measure 26-183

Appoint county sheriffs


You might think that given the Dan Staton debacle, we would be eager to try a new method of selecting sheriffs in Multnomah County. But the reality is Staton’s problems didn’t stem from how he got into office, but rather how he conducted himself once he got there.

Multnomah County, like all counties in Oregon and the vast majority nationwide, elects its sheriffs. It has elected some successful ones and some who’ve run into deep trouble.

Measure 26-183, which passed the charter review committee on a 7-5 vote, would give the county chair the authority to hire the sheriff, with consent of the county board. It also would do away with the requirement that the sheriff live in the county.

The idea of appointing the Multnomah County sheriff has b

een around for a long time — and even tried, briefly. We understand why. The sheriff runs the jails and still patrols certain parts of the county, particularly on the east side. The sheriff also provides police services to Troutdale and Wood Village. It’s frustrating for county commissioners to have such vital services being carried out by someone who not only doesn’t report to them, but on occasion (as with Bernie Giusto and Staton) openly feuds with them. And many see urban sheriffs, in particular, as akin to city police chiefs, who are typically hired by mayors.

The problem is, just as there have been good and bad elected sheriffs, there have been good and bad police chiefs. There are plenty of examples of good police chiefs who got canned for getting crosswise with their elected boss.

It’s telling that County Chair Deb Kafoury, who clashed with Staton, is not supporting this measure. Neither are we.

Measure 26-184

Limit campaign contributions


We like what this proposal wants to do: Reduce the influence of special-interest groups in county elections, while diversifying the pool of candidates by leveling the political playing field. The need for some control was evident in the last election for county chair, when the two leading candidates spent nearly $800,000 combined for a job that pays less than a fifth of that.

We also agree with the measure’s backers, who say Multnomah County would make a good testing ground for a bold experiment in campaign finance reform.

Yet, sadly, what we have on the ballot is a mess.

Measure 26-124, which squeaked to the ballot on a 7-6 vote of the Charter Review Committee, would do a bunch of things. Some of them might even be legal.

The vexing details are available in the Voters Pamphlet, but the key provision would limit any individual or political action committee to $500 in contributions to any county race during an election cycle. It also would allow donations of $100 or less to be bundled into “small donor committees,” which could give unlimited amounts to a campaign. And it would seem to prevent corporations from giving at all.

Proponents concede that such provisions might not withstand a legal challenge.

They say a legal fight is needed to overturn previous court rulings that have hurt efforts to limit money in politics. Perhaps that’s so, but we don’t think voters should support a measure that’s likely to result in large legal bills for county government. While one commission candidate, Sharon Meieran, is backing the measure, the current commissioners are cool to the idea. And one of them, Loretta Smith, is actively opposing Measure 26-184.

Smith, the only African-American on the county board of commissioners, worries that forcing county candidates (who lack the organization of a Bernie Sanders) to rely solely on small contributions means they will need to be either independently wealthy or spend all their time fundraising. As a result, a measure intended to encourage “regular” residents to run for office will likely make it more difficult.

Chalk this up to good intentions gone awry. Measure 26-184 has too many problems to fix. We urge a “no” vote.

Measure 26-185

Charter review selection


As one might guess from reading the endorsements above, being on the county Charter Review Committee is a thankless task. But it’s important.

The volunteer members of the 15-person committee are appointed by state lawmakers representing districts in the county. Currently, there’s no formal process for potential committee members to get their names in front of the legislators. And there’s no roster of applicants for the legislators to review.

Measure 26-185 would change that by authorizing the county’s Office of Citizen Involvement to inform residents about the opportunity to serve on the commission, create a pool of interested candidates and forward those names to the appropriate state senators and representatives. The lawmakers would still get to make their choices — and they would not be restricted to the names forwarded by the county.

Everyone, including us, seems to think this is a good idea.