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County leaders meet for public safety summit


In St. Helens, common ground between counties sought

by: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Association of Oregon Counties President Earl FisherThe Association of Oregon Counties held an all-day summit on public safety at the Columbia 911 Communications District office in St. Helens on Tuesday, April 29.

The summit drew a strong turnout, with county commissioners, district attorneys and sheriffs from across the western half of Oregon attending. Eric Schmidt, a spokesman for the association, estimated about 50 people showed up.

“There were a lot of people in the room, and I think we got a lot of work done,” Schmidt said after the meeting.

Tuesday’s summit was the third such event the AOC has organized this year, and the first to be held outside southern Oregon.

Association President Earl Fisher, who sits on the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, said the purpose of the meetings is to forge a unified coalition of county officials to lobby the Oregon Legislative Assembly on public safety issues.

“I could be way wrong — I may be way too cynical about the whole governmental process — but I think if you go in and you don’t have your arguments together, you’ve given the Legislature, the people sitting in those committees, a good reason to say ‘no,’” Fisher said. “The whole take is to see if we can find a common theme.”

Many counties in Oregon are grappling with public safety crises, but not all of the situations are the same, Fisher and Schmidt observed.

“We’re still trying to figure out what’s practical, what’s doable, what’s needed,” said Schmidt. “We have 36 counties, and we have 36 different situations.”

Columbia County is slated to close its jail — a 255-bed facility built at the turn of the millennium — due to lack of operating funds, unless voters approve a last-ditch $7.07 million levy option on the ballot May 20.

At the same time, the likes of Clatsop and Washington counties do not have enough bed capacity in their jails to hold everyone who is booked, forcing them to release some low-priority inmates — just as Columbia County is doing.

Schmidt said one possibility is that the state Legislature could intervene to save troubled county jails. Fisher gave some examples of potential legislative action, including increasing the state’s share of funding for district attorneys’ offices and and shouldering the cost of medicine for jail inmates.

The AOC will hold another discussion on public safety at its conference in Hood River next month, Schmidt said. Another summit will likely be held in eastern Oregon sometime after July 4, he added.