Voters in one of Oregon’s most sprawling counties will have the chance to dramatically reshape their county government.
The question before Douglas County residents is whether or not to approve a home rule charter. It’s on the ballot in the Nov. 7 election.
A home rule charter is “like a local constitution,” said Rob Bovett. He’s the expert on home rule at the Association of Oregon Counties. Neither he nor his employer are taking a position on the Douglas County initiative.
Bovett said while the phrase “home rule” makes it sound like counties without such a charter don’t control their own destiny, the reality is very different.
“Cities and counties have inherent authority to act on any matter of local concern, unless the Legislature has told them they can’t,” he said.
Instead, home rule charters in Oregon give counties more flexibility in how they set up their government. For instance, the Douglas County proposal expands the Board of Commissioners from three members to five. It creates districts instead of having each Commissioner selected on an at-large basis. And it eliminates the commissioners’ salaries, replacing them with a relatively small monthly stipend that’s tied to attendance at public meetings.
In exchange for losing their salaries, the commissioners would be relieved from the job of overseeing county operations on a day-to-day basis. That duty would fall to a newly created position of county manager. It’s a local government model that’s commonly used by cities in Oregon, as well as some counties.
“We think the time has come because of the complexity of government that we start to look at having professionals involved at a much deeper level,” said Stacey McLaughlin, a former Douglas County employee who’s volunteering for the campaign in favor of the charter.
McLaughlin said there are no specific qualifications to be elected to the commission currently. That means the three commissioners are given direct control over county departments they may have very little knowledge of when they get elected.
“We want them to be policymakers. We do not need them to be the managers,” she said. “That belongs to a professional who has the experience, the training, and the professional capabilities to deal with those complex issues.”
To opponents of the home rule charter, the current set-up gives voters more say in how the county operates. That’s one of the arguments being made by the political action committee that formed to fight the initiative.
The campaign is being run by Doug Robertson, who stepped down in 2014 after serving more than three decades as a Douglas County Commissioner.
“One of the most troubling things, from my perspective having spent some time in this business of county government, [would be] the enormous shift of power and authority away from elected officials to an unelected administrator,” Robertson said.
The opponents are on track to raise more than 10 times the amount of money as the home rule charter’s supporters. The money is being spent on television commercials and giant signs posted in front of businesses in Roseburg and other Douglas County communities.
Much of the money being spent to defeat the measure has come from those businesses, especially those involved in the timber industry.
“It’s no surprise that the people who have done most of the hiring, and the businesses that continue to support our communities and our county and our schools, are concerned about such a dramatic change in the structure of government without any opportunity for discussion,” said Robertson.
Nine Oregon counties currently have a home rule charter. They include some of the state’s most populated counties — Multnomah and Washington — as well as some rural counties, like Clatstop and Josephine. Each county with home rule achieved its status through voter approval.
Voters in 17 other counties have rejected the idea.
That list includes Douglas County, where a home rule charter has failed three times at the ballot. But the issue hasn’t come before voters there since 1980. And things have changed a lot in Douglas County since then. For instance, the county has been forced to cut back on services in the face of stagnant county tax revenues that many in the area blame on logging restrictions.
The cuts include the closure of every public library in Douglas County, which stretches from the Cascade mountains to the Oregon coast and covers an area larger than the state of Connecticut.
County commissioners asked voters last fall to increase property taxes in a last-ditch effort to keep the libraries open. That proposal was voted down, and the libraries closed their doors in the spring of 2017.
Home rule supporter Stacey McLaughlin called that a “heart-wrenching decision.” But she stops short of promising libraries would re-open if the charter passes.
“We are not going to speculate that a new board of commissioners is going to take this county in a dramatically different direction,” she said.
But she concedes that disappointment over the library closures and other service cuts has been a motivating factor for many home rule supporters.
“We need to do more in new and exciting ways than we’ve been willing to try to accomplish,” McLaughlin said. “And I think that has been a primary part of why we’re here.”