COQUILLE -- A proposed ballot measure could grind county operations to a halt, require hundreds of votes from locals each year, and contradict Oregon law, warn officials.
Commissioner Cam Parry and District Attorney R. Paul Frasier are critiquing a campaign by a group of citizens to establish Coos County's first charter.
A charter for a county, similar to a constitution for a nation, allows citizens to rewrite some of its governance rules.
While Parry and Frasier are not opposed to charters themselves -- 9 out of 36 Oregon counties have established them -- the officials say adopting this particular document would make routine decisions almost impossible for elected officials.
But the group behind the 40-page charter is unfazed. They argue their rules, which took eight months to write, would give people a voice.
'There's this four inch-thick pane of glass between us and the commissioners," said Ronnie Herne, secretary of Americans for Responsive, Responsible, Representative Government.
To establish the charter, a majority of registered voters must approve it. Herne is confident her group can collect the 1,600 signatures needed to put the charter on the November ballot.
Should that happen, Parry says, locals should read the fine print carefully.
'If Ahmadinejad was to design democracy for his country, this would be the blueprint," Parry said, referring to Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Hundreds of votes each year
Parry, an interim commissioner who is not running for office, has a laundry list of concerns about the proposed charter. One of his biggest complaints is a condition that would require the public to vote on a huge array of county decisions.
While that control might be appealing to some people -- voters would approve tax increases, certain nuisance ordinances, certain land transfers, and pay raises for elected officials -- they also delve into the impractical. Parry said voters would be approving an overwhelming number of mundane contracts.
Another condition requires voter approval if the county sells or disposes of any equipment that cost more than $25,000 new. Parry says that means citizens could cast a hundred votes each year on the fate of minor items, from aging pickup trucks to IT infrastructure.
'The public would be fatigued to death from voting," Parry said. 'It would be easier to install a red button and a green button in everybody's home and have them push it in the morning."
Not only would constant voting slow down the operation of the county, Parry believes it would add cost.
Contracts often have short deadlines to be signed or for action to be taken. Parry said that means certain contracts would need to be constantly rewritten while officials tally votes. In addition, it costs the county $60,000 to mail and print special ballots.
Jaye Bell, one of the charter's key authors, believes Parry is inflating the number of votes that would be needed. She believes Parry felt threatened by the rules because they would restrict his personal agenda.
Bell said roadwork contracts were a perfect example of decision-making that should be in the hands of voters.
'That's almost a million dollars," Bell said. 'It would seem if we want to spend almost a million dollars of the people's money, perhaps we should ask what the people want."
Bell also said more public votes wouldn't add extra cost to taxpayers because all decisions could be delayed until regularly scheduled ballots in May and November.
An elected HR director
Parry is concerned about other proposals that may be well-intentioned but would have 'unintended consequences."
Under the charter, the county's human resources director would be elected by voters -- similar to the county's assessor or treasurer.
Parry can't imagine how the director could balance his need to make tough personnel decisions -- from terminations to union contracts -- while being likable to voters.
'Every time the HR director came to an impasse with a bargaining unit," Parry said. 'They can say, 'OK. We are going to recall you. Next.'"
A separate concern for Parry is a condition that forbids the county from accepting grants that require compliance with certain 'green" standards.
Parry said, under that condition, the county would have been forbidden from almost any grant relating to energy. The county would have to reject a recent grant for boilers to heat the county courthouse. The county would also be barred from its current quest for a grant for solar panels.
Frasier says one particular section of the charter, if implemented, may freeze the entirety of the county's health funding.
That section reads: The county can not accept any grants that 'violate the citizens' personal choices regarding health care decisions."
Based on that wording, Frasier said, the charter could potentially gut the county's health department, which is fueled almost entirety by state and federal sources. That would mean the department would likely revert to state control.
Frasier has a range of concerns with the charter's language regarding his position. The district attorney is a unique position, he said, because under Oregon's constitution he is answerable to the state rather than the county.
'There are several things in there that say department heads are totally answerable to the commissioners and along those lines," Frasier said. 'For me, that's not going to happen."
Despite the criticism, the report's authors are standing their ground.
Bell says concerns that an elected human resources director would be frequently recalled are unwarranted.
'The only people that might be unhappy would be the county employees," Bell said. 'And there's not enough county employees to recall the position."
Bell said a recall of assessor Adam Colby, organized by county employees in 2010, was different. In that instance, the employees had the support of the commissioners.
Bell also deflected Parry's complaint about energy grants. She said most of those grants had 'strings attached" that the county didn't need. She said the county should not have accepted the grant for boilers.
As for health care, Bell said, it might be preferable if the county's health department was controlled directly by the state. To her, it seemed that the department was largely following the directions of the state anyway.
Ultimately, Bell believed her group would be out petitioning within the next two weeks.
She expected overwhelming support. For too long, Bell said, a narrow group of interests had been trying to dictate the county's direction.
'There's a very small group of people who continuously stand up and say, 'this is what we need to do'," Bell said. 'But it's not. It's what they need to do. We are looking at the whole county."
Reporter Daniel Simmons-Ritchie can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 249, or at email@example.com.