County charter petitions short on details

Changing Jackson County’s government from three county commissioners to five and making the positions nonpartisan is long overdue. It would help a great deal if the initiative petitions seeking to do that contained a bit more detail on what that would look like.

Medford City Councilor Kevin Stine has filed prospective petitions with the Jackson County Clerk’s Office. Both would amend the county charter, which requires a vote of the people.

One would change the Board of Commissioners from three members to five; the other would make the positions nonpartisan.

Stine is correct when he says county commissioners typically are called upon to decide issues such as land-use questions, similar to city councilors, who are elected on a nonpartisan basis. In Oregon, three-quarters of counties have nonpartisan boards of commissioners, and voters in those counties have approved the changes in all but one case — Baker County, where the measure failed once but passed the following year.

Even more compelling is the chief argument for expanding the board from three members to five. Because any meeting involving two of the three commissioners constitutes a quorum, those two must be scrupulous about never discussing county business except in a regularly scheduled meeting for fear of violating Oregon public meetings law.

Here’s another argument Stine has so far not made, so we will: Under the three-commissioner system, newly elected commissioners start at an annual salary of $92,352, which increases to more than $100,000 as they serve longer. The positions are considered full-time jobs.

The county also employs a full-time professional county administrator, responsible for the day-to-day operation of county government. If the Board of Commissioners, responsible for policy decisions, increased from three members to five, it would seem reasonable to treat those positions as part-time, and lower the commissioners’ salaries accordingly.

The initiative petitions don’t include a job description or address the salary issue; that would be left up to the commissioners themselves if the measures should pass.

Once ballot titles for the petitions are approved, Stine could begin collecting signatures as early as next week. If he collects at least 4,956 signatures, the measures would appear on the November ballot.

Voters may welcome the concept of nonpartisan commissioners, but might be less willing to expand the board if it means spending more tax dollars. The measures would have a greater chance of passing if the existing salaries were split five ways.

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