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Our Opinion: Cogen's gone, but issues need attention

Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen’s sex scandal has accomplished one thing: It has riveted the public’s attention, for a fleeting moment, on an entity that doesn’t receive the public scrutiny it deserves.

With an all-funds budget of about $1.5 billion, Multnomah County is one of this region’s largest consumers and distributers of public resources. Yet, when its leaders aren’t embroiled in controversy, county government seems to operate in the background — rarely at the top of anyone’s mind.

A decade ago, the topic of gay marriage, along with county Chairman Diane Linn’s ongoing battle with the so-called “Mean Girls” commissioners, thrust county government into the spotlight. Now, the focus is on Cogen, his seamy behavior and subsequent resignation.

Soon, we and other media in town will turn our attention to the horse-race aspects of the election to replace Cogen in May. Maybe the controversy swirling around Cogen will keep voters engaged, but history has shown the county isn’t their biggest priority.

As long as peaceful relations reign among commissioners at county headquarters on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, the public assumes the government is running smoothly. One of Cogen’s accomplishments was to extend the collegial era that commissioners had enjoyed after Ted Wheeler was elected chairman in 2006.

Commissioners, until recently, may have been working well together, but that doesn’t mean the county lacks major contentious issues. Voter-approved creation of a library district — certainly Cogen’s biggest achievement — gave the county general fund some financial relief, but large questions remain about how the new district can be managed most efficiently for the public that uses library facilities.

Meanwhile, a number of lingering concerns have been all but forgotten. The Wapato Jail, which was completed in 2003 at a cost of $58 million, has never housed a single inmate because the county doesn’t have funds to operate it. The county spends $300,000 per year just to maintain this hulking white elephant, which needs to be repurposed for some other use, whether by business or government.

Another Cogen accomplishment was to get the Sellwood Bridge replacement under way, but the county is still left with the chore of repairing or replacing all the other aging and outdated bridges over the Willamette River.

At the county sheriff’s office, deputies are still housed in the moldy, unhealthy Hansen building on Southeast Halsey Street. County commissioners must sign off on whatever plan emerges either to improve that building or move the sheriff’s office to a new location.

These subjects — libraries, corrections, law enforcement and transportation — pose important challenges, but they are sideshows in comparison to the county’s primary purpose: providing health and human services to this area’s most vulnerable citizens.

Many of the county’s duties also happen to intersect with services provided by the city of Portland and other cities in the county. So, the largest question of all is whether taxpayers can be served more cost effectively by merging some functions and making a sincere attempt to eliminate duplication.

The ongoing business of county government isn’t as interesting as reading about the county chairman’s extramarital fling with a county employee and his abuse of his position along the way. It would be a mistake, however, to believe that getting Cogen out of office will resolve any of the more consequential matters that county officials should be working on each day.