Petitions: more commissioners, less partisanship

A Medford city councilor is behind a pair of proposed ballot initiatives that would expand the number of Jackson County commissioners, and change the way voters elect them.

Kevin Stine said he hopes to begin collecting signatures by next week for two prospective petitions he filed with the Jackson County Elections Office that seek to make the elected positions nonpartisan, and expand the number of paid county commissioners from three to five by the 2020 election.

Three-quarters of Oregon counties have nonpartisan county commissioners, Stine notes, including nearby Josephine and Klamath counties, as well as the larger counties of Multnomah, Clackamas and Lane.

“We’ve waited so long that we’ve become the minority,” Stine said, adding that a nonpartisan commission typically has broad support. “Every time it’s gone to ballot, except for once, it passes.”

The exception was Baker County, Stine said, which failed in May 2015 by 3 points in a low-turnout election. It ultimately passed in November 2016 by a 1 percent margin.

Stine said that county commissioners, similar to city councilors, typically consider land-use issues that don’t neatly fit into party platforms.

“It’s not so much a Democrat-Republican issue,” Stine said.

Mail Tribune archives show that the issue of nonpartisan commissioners, the only elected county officials chosen by party, is a perennial one, revisited every few years for the better part of two decades.

In fall 2013, then-commissioner Don Skundrick discussed plans to put the issue to voters the following May, but the proposed measure ultimately fizzled out, largely over other commissioners’ concerns that the issue would overshadow a proposed library district.

Initiatives changing the county charter have to be approved by voters, either through measures put forth by county commissioners or through the petition process. Stine said he plans to make a pitch to the county commissioners later this month.

“No matter how small a change it is, voters ultimately decide,” Stine said.

Farther back, in 2001, local League of Women Voters chapters discussed advocating for expanding the board of commissioners to five, structured with one partisan full-time county commissioner and four nonpartisan part-timers. The league ultimately dropped the proposal because it had become more complicated than anticipated.

Stine’s petitions are in the middle of the formal ballot titling process, according to Jackson County Clerk Chris Walker, with tentative names generated by the District Attorney’s Office including “Nonpartisan Commissioners” and “Increase Number of Commissioners.”

Stine said the expansion to five commissioners allows members greater flexibility on quorum rules. Stine mentioned meetings and events where special accommodations were needed to keep two of three commissioners separate.

“Moving from three to five simply makes more practical sense,” Stine said.

When asked whether Stine would run in 2020 were the positions to open up, Stine said no.

“I have no intention of running for a position that’s not even there,” Stine said, later adding, “This isn’t about me.”

It’s unclear whether the measure would change the county budget. Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan said he hasn't been directed to review the numbers yet, but the change would not be automatic.

"If there were additional expenses for this or any other issue, it's a matter of budgeting from available funds," Jordan wrote in an email, adding that he "won't speculate how the Commissioners would want to proceed at this point."

Commissioner salary currently starts at $92,352 per year, according to Jordan, though commissioners Bob Strosser and Colleen Roberts have accepted reduced salaries in the past. (Updated)

Assuming ballot titles are uncontested, Stine could submit a cover page and signature sheets requesting approval to the clerk by Friday, according to Walker, and the clerk could approve the two petitions as early as next week. (Corrected)

Once approved to collect petitions, Stine said he’ll need 4,956 signatures to get the measures on November’s ballot. Stine said he’s hoping to coordinate volunteers and messages through www.votingforthepeople.com.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

Correction and update: The story printed June 6 incorrectly stated that the court approves measures for petition. The county clerk makes the approval that allows petitioners to begin collecting signatures. The story has also been updated with comment from Jackson County Administrator Danny Jackson, who said that changes to the budget or payroll would be up to commissioners if voters were to approve the two extra paid positions.

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