A convincing argument can be made that a small group of anti-government, pro-business activists with their hearts set on centralizing the local political power structure seized upon the deaths of two commissioners as an opportunity to, amongst other things. install a county administrator. Two citizen advisory committees proposed by self professed “sidewinder” and interim commissioner, Fred Messerle, each set about the task of finding justification to hire a public administrator to take over duties from the commissioners while at the same time diminishing the scope, involvement and commitment of the board by filling it with part time volunteers.
Both the structure and governance advisory committees have prepared a list of specious if not downright spurious arguments to convince the public hiring an administrator will move the county into the 21st century, or “move forward” as is the oft repeated phrase. The commissioners cannot speak to one another about county business outside of public view. While each department functions independently and liaises with a commissioner public meetings law requiring the commissioners to hold all discussions before the public somehow interferes with day to day efficiencies within the departments. Specifics as to how an administrator will fix whatever is broken are not provided. The reader must accept on faith that hiring an administrator is a guaranteed way to lower costs and raise revenues.
At the most recent governance advisory committee meeting held last week in North Bend the committee finalized a draft report released earlier to the press along with some minor changes. The report recommends a significant change in county government that includes hiring an administrator and electing five commissioners representing individual wards but who are voted on by the entire county electorate and making these positions unpaid volunteer positions.
Members of both committees have listed various assumptions as to why Coos County should move away from a council form of government to council manager form that include better communication between departments, more continuity for employees who would be buffered from changes on the board and cost saving efficiencies. These are specious arguments because there is nothing about the current system of government that prevents these and other changes being made if they are really suitable.
The other argument made by certain committee members is that Coos County is broken and cannot simply be tweaked or adjusted but must be completely disposed of in favor of a new “cost neutral” governance model. We are to believe that the county is on the verge of economic ruin, that the Beaver Hill Disposal Site was mismanaged because of commissioner incompetence and not external corporate pressures and that a professional public administrator would have prevented all these things from happening in the first place. The country is rife with examples of council/manager municipalities or counties that have managed there assets and services well and rife with those that have not, (think Birmingham, Alabama for one).
In truth, Coos County is in pretty good shape compared to its neighbors Curry, Josephine and Lane counties thanks in no small part to previous commissioners, then county forester Bob LaPort and CBWR historian and candidate for commissioner, Don Gurney who established the county timber fund. Curiously, Lane County has the almost identical setup with five commissioners and an administrator being proposed by the governance committee, although it pays its commissioners and provides them with a staff, and yet despite having a professional administrator Coos County is in healthier financial condition. These committees are suggesting a move to a new model of governance when there is no empirical evidence whatsoever that the form of governance has any real impact on economic health or efficiency or on the delivery of essential services. None. The committee is effectively suggesting we swap an admittedly troubled but nonetheless functioning system for a system that is failing other counties.
Despite Al Pettit’s doom and gloom presentation last week about rampant vandalism, uncollected rotting corpses, declining services, lost mushroom pickers and all volunteer deputies and, oh my gosh, raising taxes*, he once again fails to connect the dots between his handpicked news articles and hiring an administrator as a way to save people lost in the woods. [Watch it here beginning at about 1:10:30]
Members of these committees are clearly convinced that dispensing with paid full time commissioners and centralizing control by hiring an administrator is in their best interests but they clearly are not telling us the truth about why and whether those benefits extend to the rest of the county. As the committees continue to obfuscate their real motivations with specious arguments the more suspicious the public will become. Until they fess up** why they really want an administrator, as someone on the governance committee rightly proclaimed, if the employees and the public don’t buy in to these changes the attempt will fail. For this reason even though at least two of our sitting commissioners give these committees more credence than they deserve, the product of these committees is really irrelevant without real public hearings and support. In other words, it ain’t gonna fly.
In the end it is all about the people you have in office and even the smartest administrator, with the wrong personality or temperament would be disastrous. Look at Lakeside or all the turmoil in Coos Bay with its city administrators as local examples of potential problems. Neither report addresses the potential downside of enacting these sweeping changes.
* Pettit reports that Curry County would have to raise its taxes by more than 200% to make a dent in its budget deficit. Curry County has the lowest property tax rate in the state at .60 per $1,000 or approximately 240% lower than the state average of $2.48 per $1,000
**Jon Barton of the structure advisory committee let it slip during a radio interview that ORC would have a lease by now if the county had an administrator.