Five is Too Few County Commissioners

Every Lane County Commissioner wants to bring more jobs that pay above-average wages to the area. Here’s a surefire way to bring four of those jobs, while saving the county money and legitimizing future “book clubs.” Expand the number of commissioners from five to nine, and cut the pay and benefits of each in half.

According to the Oregon Employment Department, the average wage in Lane County is $35,889. The current salary of a Lane County commissioner is $74,298. Cut that salary in half and it’s still above what an average constituent earns.

Lane County was governed by three commissioners when its home rule charter was adopted in 1963. Our population was 165,000. In 1976, our population had grown to 250,000. Voters increased the commissioner population to five, restoring the leader-to-citizen ratio to what it had been originally. It’s past time to do it again.

Our county’s population is approaching 400,000. If people feel less connected to their county leadership, might it be because each leader is that much further removed from the people? Each Eugene City Councilor represents about 20,000 people. Lane County commissioners represent almost four times as many people each.

In early 2011, Coos County Circuit Judge Michael Gillespie ruled that three Lane County commissioners orchestrated their activities to win budget approval for paid assistants. They wanted to get around the state law that forbids a quorum of legislators from discussing official business outside of public meetings.

They referred to these efforts as a “book club.” In all their recorded testimony, no evidence was presented that their book club ever discussed a book. I’ve been in a book club where we sometimes didn’t get around to discussing the book, but this was different.

As a result, State Senator Floyd Prozanski has suggested revamping Oregon’s open meeting law. My solution solves a deeper problem. Nearly doubling the number of commissioners can change how our commissioners get along.

If we had nine commissioners, three like-minded politicians — or even four — could gather without having a quorum at a non-public meeting.

Good governance advocates might suggest that politicians should never get together except at public meetings, but that’s either silly or stupid, take your choice. Of Oregon’s 36 counties, 30 of them have only three commissioners (or, in many cases, two commissioners and a presiding judge acting as the third.)

In most of those counties, one commissioner cannot bring chicken soup to the home of an ailing colleague, lest the exchange present the “appearance of impropriety” as a majority of the county’s leaders meet out of the public eye. In some counties, that must make it hard to attend high school football games.

A larger governing body would eliminate most of those difficulties. If we want leaders who listen to one another when conducting the people’s business, isn’t that better served by people who understand each other, who respect each other, maybe even who like each other?

Last week I argued that government agencies need more tables. This week I’m asking the Lane County Commissioners to add four chairs. It must seem that I’ve become a shill for the furniture industry, but I do believe that sitting together has been lost in our quest to make government efficient.

Before Jack Nicholson’s psychotic character in “The Shining” ruined it, we all believed the proverb, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” The same goes for political bodies.

I want politicians to join a real book club with other politicians, or a bowling team, or a doubles tennis match — each without having a majority of commissioners present. Personally, I’d draw the line at beach volleyball, but that’s just me. Quorum-free social gatherings will build trust. Different contexts allows fuller expressions of the people who represent us.

As each commissioner becomes less of a caricature, the discussions around the table will become more real, votes will be less predictable. Issues will be honestly explored, often beyond the liberal or conservative labeling. Allegiances will shift according to the topic. Citizens will pay more attention. Cynicism will wane. Book clubs will revive.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.