A seed was planted for change during the March 29 meeting of the Josephine County Commissioners. During the public comments Jim Gower asked that the Charter Review Commission keep local county elections non-partisan but expand the Commission from three to five members with a county administrator. While Gower didn’t say so in the brief, three-minute window of time he had to present his idea, most counties with five Commissioners and an administrator do not pay their commissioners because the administrator takes care of all the day to day business while commissioners meet to set policy. Gower, of Grants Pass, said he supports a non-partisan local government that includes a modern government structure that represents the welfare of all the citizens and helps build the county’s economic vitality.
The Charter Review Commission has voted to make all county elected offices partisan, which means people would have to run as a Democrat or Republican. Voters must approve this change though.
“These changes should include a modern government structure, non-partisan elective process, a five-member commission office, elected from five districts. Candidate qualifications should include leadership experience, that can be from the private as well as the public sector. And a county administrator whose function is to oversee the day to day operations of the county. While there are more issues that the charter commission is dealing with, these form the core items that will establish effective responsible and nonpartisan leadership in the operation of Josephine County. Effective in the sense that county personnel will have a clear line of communications for their departments to and through the county administrator increasing efficiency and possibly reducing operating costs plus the commissioners will have an administrator knowledgeable of county operations, will keep them informed of operational issues and will be the focus of actions or issues that arise within the commissioners’ office. Responsible in the sense that these changes will establish a clear line of authority and responsibility in the county’s governmental operation,” said Gower.
In their responses, Commissioner Dan DeYoung didn’t mention the charter comments.
Commissioner John West said, “Jim I know the charter review committee working on the charter is doing hard work and a good job and we’ll see what comes about. Some of your thoughts, I guess, will be addressed. One thing I want you to realize, I heard the county administrator term come up a lot but we have a hard time funding the sheriff without creating a whole new department head that’s very expensive. The citizens feel the sheriff is more important than a new county administrator.”
Commission Chair Herman Baertschiger scoffed at the idea local elections should be non-partisan. “As far as non-partisan, our country’s partisan. Our federal level is partisan, our state level is partisan that’s how our Democracy, our Republic is, it’s parties and it’s very hard for one form of government of elected officials to be under a set of rules and the next form like the state level to be under a different form and the federal level so I would be very interested if you had a conversation with the majority party at the north end of the state to see if they would be interested in nonpartisan positions. That would really be a fascinating discussion,” he said.
Baertschiger gave Gower a brief lesson on county structure in Oregon. “There’s three ways that counties are governed in Oregon. There’s the county judge and two commissioners, a series of commissioners with a county administrator, and then ours which is three commissioners. Each one of those has its flaws. And so if you go from ours, three commissioners to say five and an administrator you just…you exchange, they got flaws because I talked to people that have served on those commissions so there’s no..I guess what I’m saying there’s nothing perfect out there.”
West and Baertschiger said they, as Commissioners, have nothing to do with the county charter since the Charter Review Commission is dealing with that and it has to be approved by voters if there are any changes. They did not say, however, that they appointed the Charter Commission members which gave them the opportunity to fill it with like-minded people.
The next public comment of substance came from Mark Jones. He told the board he was thinking about the word “integrity,” especially since four county department heads have left since the start of 2023. “Over the 88 days into 2023 already, 4 of 15 non-elected department heads decided to leave. A couple weeks ago I mentioned employee retention and I emphasized how important it is for Josephine County to make a workplace enjoyable since we do not have the money to compensate employees like other counties can. I hear they are leaving for greener pastures, yet I know how difficult it is to uproot your family and move across the state or in my case a few states. It’s a pain in the butt, not to mention you lose all the blood, sweat and tears equity that you’ve put into your career, home and your life. All this in hopes you can do it all over again somewhere else. My point is that maybe it’s not all about the money like we think. You know, it could be stress or just not being happy in their workplace. When a demolition crew sets up to bring down a building they place charges at certain structural points. Once those charges explode it brings the building down upon itself, so one could say the best way to bring down a building is from within. This might be the best way to bring down an organization as well. You could destroy it from within and give the appearance that the organization or structure doesn’t work. Makes you wonder about the things we see happening these days. So real quick I’ll just end in this, that I’m very concerned that within 88 days of 2023 we’ve lost 26.7 percent of the county’s non-elected department heads. Think about that, you know one fourth of our department heads have left so I think we need to look into a solution before we lose anymore.”
DeYoung responded by saying “Mark, thanks for your deal there.”
West told Jones, “Mark, I don’t know what to say. Everybody’s free to move on and do what they want. It’s partly in these times everybody is poaching everybody they can. And I don’t know if it’s always 100 percent pay but maybe security. Maybe I move to more funds because I know my next 20 years will be secure. It’s hard for us in our position.”
Baertschiger claimed people go where they can get a higher salary in their last three years so they’ll get a better retirement. “Mark, I’m gonna tell you something. Nothin’ weird’ s goin’ on. You have to remember the current department heads that are leaving… I’ll tell you exactly what it is. It’s more money cause the last three years of you working, the last three years is what your PERS benefits are on, OK? So if somebody has worked here for 20 years and then they go to another county that has reserve funds and pays a lot more money and they only have to work there for three years, that’s what the retirement’s gonna be based on. Not of what when they worked in Josephine County. So it’s the last three years, so there’s…so there’s some of that I think is going on then there’s also some health issues and there’s just some that are retiring. They’re old. They’re retiring. So I don’t see any special trend. You have to remember Josephine County has no reserve funds and most, I think it’s like 87 percent of our funding for our departments, are government grants and I think our department heads are smart enough to know that if the grants dry up that department goes away. It just goes away. So I think that’s what’s going on. I don’t think it’s, you know, people are upset or mad or anything. I think they’re frustrated but, um, at least that’s my take.”
Coen Ellenwood stepped to the podium to say the American Rescue Plan, which provided the $5 million being used to fund the sheriff right now, was a $360 billion grant so other department heads could apply as well. He advised them to go to grants.gov to find out more. He also suggested a more permanent fund for the sheriff could come out of the Flying Lark if it were leased to someone who might partner with Oregon Lottery and DraftKing Sportsbook, an online betting service, which is legal in Oregon. DeYoung told Ellenwood to take his ideas to Recreation/Fairgrounds Director Tamra Martin, who is handling requests concerning the Flying Lark.
In other business Commissioners heard a report from the Illinois Valley Watershed Council and the Soil and Water Conservation District on their latest plans. IVWC Director Keven O’Brian said his board is undergoing a strategic planning process, reviewing bylaws and procedures and are involved with water quality testing, especially where illegal marijuana grow hardware has been crushed. The Soil and Water Conservation district is holding community meetings to discuss water quality in the Illinois Valley and how it affects wildlife and fish.
Mark Jones asked that his property be annexed into the Merlin Park District so he can be on the board. Commissioners approved that request. Jones was also appointed to the Rural Planning Commission.