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Columbia County and its public relations problems

There are no small deeds when it comes to electoral politics in the run-up to a general election, especially when there are hotly contested issues and candidate races on the line. Columbia County Board of Commisioners candidate Wayne Mayo found that out last week when he was called to task for misleading statements — lies, perhaps — he had inserted into the state voters pamphlet regarding his role in the development of the Columbia River People’s Utility District. Mayo now has to pay the political price, as he should.

Last week, too, we received a press release from the Columbia County Board of Commissioners public relations person, Randy Sanders, announcing an upcoming “Coffee with the Commissioners” event in St. Helens on Wednesday morning, Oct. 8, starting at 7:30 a.m.

We discussed the event briefly in our newsroom, but from all appearances it looked like a publicity stunt, one that undoubtedly would benefit Columbia County Commissioner Henry Heimuller, who is the incumbent in a run-off race against Mayo. There was no agenda beyond a meet-and-greet with the commissioners.

Oregon election law is pretty clear about restrictions on using public employees or resources to schedule political appearances or candidate forums, but there are workarounds. One, for example, would be to call it “Coffee with the Commissioners,” and include the involvement of all three commissioners. Interestingly, this seems to be the first such commissioner outreach event of this type, which occurred one week prior to ballots being mailed for the Nov. 4 election.

That fact was not lost on some people following Columbia County’s posting of photos from the event on its Facebook page. Ten minutes after the county’s post, one Facebook user asked, “Is there a candidate forum scheduled?” Twenty minutes later, a second Facebook user noted, “Interesting timing — just weeks before the election — to hold such an event.”

Indeed. It brought to mind the Port of St. Helens’ publication of its newsletter, the Compass, in spring 2013, a few weeks prior to the May 21, 2013, special election. Two commissioners — Terry Luttrell and Chris Iverson — were up for re-election in that race, and conveniently the port’s Compass included a “Featured Commissioners” section on page four, which focused on Luttrell and Iverson. It was the first time, as we could tell, the Compass contained such a section. And, as far as we’re aware, it was the last.

As telling about the county commissioners’ coffee event was the content of Columbia County’s initial post. In it, the county’s Facebook administrator — Sanders, we surmise — wrote, “’Meet your Commissioners’ event at Burgerville this morning was robust and productive (on a side note, I arrived at 7:15 am and left at 9am and did not see one newspaper reporter there). Here are some photos.”

The post prompted our question, “What, exactly, was the news that was announced or discussed at this event that warranted coverage? Tell us what we missed.” From the posted photos it looked like backslapping and handshaking of just a handful of attendees.

For reference, the same morning we covered the 8:30 a.m. Port of St. Helens meeting, and then attended the regular 10 a.m. meeting of the Board of Commissioners.

Facebook Columbia County dodged our question, however. Its response? “In Oregon, three county commissioners in a room constitutes a ‘public meeting.’ Perhaps public meetings deserve coverage?”

Some public meetings deserve coverage, sure. Others, especially those masquerading as public meetings for the purpose of political promotion, do not.

Facebook Columbia County later deleted the comment about the absence of newspaper reporters, hopefully with the realization it is a foolish tactic for a public agency to attempt to shame local media into giving it publicity, and that it appeared as such. (As a side note, Facebook Columbia County, people can still see the original post just by clicking on the highlighted “Edited” link under your username.)

It is notable, too, that we received another comment to our inquiry, again with the effort to call into question our coverage. The comment came from Diane Dillard’s granddaughter. Dillard, we should mention, works as Heimuller’s campaign manager.

It’s a small occurrence, perhaps, in the complicated, social media-savvy world of kill-or-be-killed electoral politics. But it illustrates how the current Board of Commissioners will use its position to raise political awareness for a preferred member of its club. We expect better, and, yes, we are paying attention.