COQUILLE — Home rule is back on the ballot this fall, with nearly the same arguments for and against echoing across Coos County.
Fairview residents Ronnie Herne and Jaye Bell penned “Voice of the Voters” Coos County Home Rule Charter, which secured enough signatures to earn a ballot measure spot in the November election.
For years, different committees and political organizations have called for a change in Coos County government. The League of Women Voters of Coos County have debated the issue since 2004. Coos County itself put together two committees a few years ago. They reached essentially the same recommendation: Hire a professional county administrator and establish a ward system with five commissioners.
That work never turned into change. Jon Barton, who was cochair of the structure committee, says it’s because of “the noisemakers” — the frequent attendees at commission meetings. Instead of hiring an administrator, there was so much public outcry that the county put it on the ballot.
At the same time, a new group had formed: Americans for Responsive, Responsible, Representative Government (ARRRG), led by Herne and Bell. They got their home rule charter on the ballot, too.
But with both a home rule charter and a county administrator on the ballot, voters were confused. Both measures failed.
“The ultimate objective was to get a professional administrator to run the day-to-day affairs of the county because the commissioners are, first of all, not well-qualified to administer a government of that size and complexity,” Barton said.
Herne and Bell are back again this fall with a 43-page charter.
What is home rule?
Oregon counties started out with “county courts,” giving county judges the responsibilities county commissioners have today. Eight eastern Oregon counties still operate this way.
In 1961, counties had the option of switching to a “board of commissioners” system. Twenty-seven Oregon counties operate as “general law,” which includes the eight county courts counties. Their authority derives from the Oregon Constitution and Oregon Revised Statutes.
The “home rule” system came to life around the same time. Counties choosing this route adopt charters that give county government specific directions as to how it should operate. These charters are unique to each of the nine home rule counties. Some have a county administrator, some have three- or five-member boards of commissioners, some have a mix of the two.
Home rule can be achieved in two ways: How Herne and Bell are doing it, by putting it to the voters, or a county charter committee can develop a charter. The current board of commissioners has repeatedly denied Herne and Bell’s requests to consider their charter specifically.
“I think home rule is a good thing,” said Commissioner Melissa Cribbins. “It reflects the individual characteristics of a county. But I’m concerned in this case that it’s small groups of people with individual interests.”
Herne and Bell did not return repeated requests by telephone and email for comment on this story.
Historically, only charters that came out of charter committees have been approved by voters across the state (See page 29).
Click on any Oregon county to see its form of county government.
What are the key points in the “Voice of the Voters” charter?
County government would change in several significant ways if the charter passes:
- The board of commissioners would expand from three to five (Section 1.5).
- At least four commissioners would be required for a vote (Section 3.11).
- The human resources director becomes an elected position (no other Oregon county elects this position) (Section 6.7).
- It prohibits a county manager or administrator (Section 7.1).
- The charter requires a slew of public votes on county matters, from any public contract or capital program involving $165,000 or more to property tax exemptions to urban renewal agencies. Other public votes are outlined in Sections 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 18, 20 and 24.
The charter’s specificity also makes Commissioner John Sweet think it’s geared toward individual interests, rather than countywide needs.
Snippets concerning where the veterans services office should be located (08:55) (Section 18.1), citizen comment rules (Section 4.1.B) and economic development funds (Section 10.10) echo Herne and Bell’s recent frustrations at commission meetings.
“It’s an attempt to undermine the concept of representative government,” Sweet said.
While the county commissioners were concerned how this would affect timber sales, the charter makes it clear that these are not tied to public votes.
“Contracts to allow the harvesting of timber or other products growing upon county land are specifically exempt from this provision,” according to Section 13.4 of the charter, which deals with public voting on contracting.
In Section 14.4, however, the charter says timber sale revenue that’s placed in the forest trust fund can only be used for “good management practices” expenses and “emergency” conditions. These funds “shall not be used to balance the county budget,” unless voters give the OK. Commissioners have used these funds in recent years to fill gaps in the budget.
If not “Voice of the Voters,” then what?
It’s not that locals are 100-percent opposed to home rule. The 2012 vote shows 41.8 percent wanted a commissioner-administrator form of county government and 25.6 percent wanted home rule.
They’re against this charter specifically, said Barton and all three commissioners.
“It seems to me to add another layer of government,” said Commissioner Bob Main. “They have some points that may be valid, but there are some fatal flaws to their proposal.”
Each election costs thousands of dollars, which Cribbins said would bankrupt the county. She said it would be a good idea to organize a charter committee following this election, since “charters can better reflect the characteristics of a county.”
Sweet agreed, but Main isn’t fully on board. He was against the structure and governance committees’ proposals two years ago because of the county administrator recommendation.
“Counties with administrators are large,” he said. “They compared them to city administrators, but cities have a limited number of departments, five or six, where we have 24 or 25. I can’t see how any one person could do an adequate job covering 24 departments.”
What happens if voters approve the charter?
Cribbins and Main would remain in office if the charter succeeds in the general election, as would whomever wins the third seat (Sweet or Don Gurney) (Section 27.4).
The remaining two commissioners would be elected in the upcoming May primary, as would the human resources director (Section 27.6).
According to the Oregon Constitution, the charter would go into effect 30 days after it’s approved.
“I think the odds are very strong that the home rule will go down in flames again,” Barton said. “It has to. If that thing passes ... how many thousands, if not millions, of dollars will be spent trying to figure out legally how to make some of that stuff work?”