A sensible change

Jackson County commissioners are considering a ballot measure that would make their positions nonpartisan. The county Republican Party opposes the concept; the Democrats say they'll look at it. That response from the party organizations is reason enough to support the idea, but it's not the only one.

The idea of nonpartisan county commissioners has been floated before, but with other, larger changes attached. In 2001, after four years of study, the League of Women Voters proposed expanding the Board of Commissioners to five, making all but one position part-time and making all the commissioner posts nonpartisan. Only the full-time, at-large commissioner would receive a salary and benefits; the four part-timers would be elected by district and would receive a stipend but no benefits.

The league ultimately decided to drop the proposal, saying it turned out to be more complicated than they had anticipated.

Nothing that elaborate is being proposed now, although a case certainly can be made that three full-time commissioners earning nearly $100,000 a year each are not necessary to run a county that already employs a professional administrator. But that's a question for another day.

For now, the issue is whether the existing three commissioner positions should be partisan.

The commissioners are the only elected county officials chosen by party. The assessor, clerk, surveyor and sheriff all are nonpartisan.

All local city councils are nonpartisan, as are the top elected officials in 23 of Oregon's 36 counties. Commissioner Don Skundrick wants to put the question on the ballot next spring, saying voters repeatedly asked him about it during his 2010 campaign. Commissioner John Rachor, who also is not seeking re-election, supported the move as well after the 2010 campaign, saying the job of a commissioner is to run the business of the county, not to decide political issues.

As it stands now, multiple candidates vie for each party's nomination in the primary, but non-affiliated voters — 25 percent of the county electorate — can vote only in the general election, depriving them of a full voice in the selection process. Under a nonpartisan system, which would require amending the county charter — all voters would cast ballots in the primary and the top two vote-getters would face off in the November election.

The third commissioner, Doug Breidenthal, who was elected last year, said the commissioners should not get involved in the change unless the voters initiated it. But the voters will make the decision in any case.

A change of this nature is not likely to generate the kind of popular enthusiasm needed to carry an initiative campaign. But voters should be given the opportunity to make the change.

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