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A County Administrator and the BOC
By Mark McKelvey
As the discussions taking place in the Governance Committee grind along, I have serious concerns about their direction. I see two issues at stake: the hiring a county administrator and the composition of the Board of Commissioners (BOC). The Governance Committee conflates the two which I think puts Coos County at risk.
My stance on hiring a county administrator is to avoid a “Fire! Ready. Aim.” approach. I do think there are efficiencies an administrator could bring to Coos County which will help the County function better and provide greater services for less money. However, like most things the devil is in the details. Before hiring one, we need to determine exactly what an administrator would do.
Of the nineteen General Law Counties in Oregon, twelve of them have administrators. It is not outrageous to see how Coos County could benefit by joining their ranks. However, caution should be our guide. In none of those twelve counties do the administrators perform the same functions. Each one has a unique job description. Some focus entirely on the budget; others oversee a silo of public works departments; a few act as an intermediary between department heads and the BOC. Before we even think about hiring an administrator, we need to determine exactly what that person will do according to a detailed job description. One size does not fit all.
Going forward I recommend we do two things. First, we need to hold meetings with all the department heads at the same table to talk about the possible benefits and potential drawbacks of adding an administrator. Next, we need to visit those other twelve counties and find out firsthand how the administrator has worked out for them. After that we will be educated enough to know whether adding an administrator will benefit Coos County, and we should have a clear idea about how it should be done. It may be the case that the County’s structural problems can best be addressed internally. Nevertheless, mismanagement is not the County’s key problem. Falling revenues from timber receipts is.
While adding an administrator could become problematic, I don’t think it puts the County at risk. However, changing the composition of the BOC does. Of those nineteen General Law counties like ours, all but one have three member BOCs. Sixteen of them employ full time commissioners. The model of three full time commissioners works very well all across the state and it has for some time.
The proposed changes to the composition of the BOC will surely weaken its authority and consequently diminish the influence of the people in county government. Adding two commissioners does not make the BOC more nimble in the face of open meeting law. Lane County’s legal trouble is testimony to that.
Reducing commissioners to part time status invites disaster. Commissioners need to be dedicated to running the County 24/7; it must be their predominant, primary concern, not a part time interest. According to Bill Penhollow of the Association of Oregon Counties, part time commissioners have a documented track record of decreased accountability and dedication.
Furthermore, I believe the position merits full time pay in order to attract the best candidates. Only one county in all of Oregon has volunteer commissioners. Very few folks in Coos County enjoy the luxury of working for free.
Additionally, carving the County into wards or districts is a divisive proposal which would inevitably pit one part of the County against another. We need to be building County unity, not sub-dividing it.
If it is determined that adding a county administrator will make Coos County more efficient and productive, then by all means we should do it. But we shouldn’t have to “pay” for it by neutering our BOC. There are twelve other Oregon counties with both a full time, three member BOC and a county administrator. That model works for them. It certainly can work for us too.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions of MGx.