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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Douglas County Initiative Would Dramatically Reshape Local Government

Chris Lehman
Northwest News Network
There are signs for and against the charter posted around Roseburg.

Voters in one of Oregon’s largest counties will have the chance this November to dramatically reshape their county government. The question before Douglas County residents is whether or not to approve a home rule charter.

The Roseburg Library is closed today. But then again, it’s been closed every day for months now. And the fact that it’s closed is one of the reasons why Stacey McLaughlin is working to convince voters to approve a new home rule charter.

“I was heartbroken that our community and our elected officials could not visualize the necessity of a library to a community,” she said.

All of the public libraries in Douglas County closed earlier this year after voters rejected a proposal to raise taxes to operate them. But McLaughlin is quick to add that the home rule charter isn’t about one issue. And she and other supporters aren’t promising specific policy changes if the charter does pass. ?

“Do we hope, on some level, that we move in some new directions? Absolutely,” McLaughlin said.

‘An enormous shift of power’

One thing is certain: If the home rule charter passes, there will be new voices serving on the Douglas County Board of Commissioners. That’s because the commission would expand from three members to five.

Another big change: The commissioners would be unpaid. Right now the county’s three commissioners earn a salary and are jointly tasked with running the day-to-day operations of the county.

McLaughlin said it’s an outdated model of government, especially for a county that’s struggled in recent years to ride out the ups and downs of the timber industry.

“We think the time has come because of the complexity of government that we start to look at having professionals involved at a much deeper level than we’ve been seeing here in Douglas County,” McLaughlin said.

The charter would create a new position of county manager. The commissioners would continue to create policy and the manager would carry it out. It’s a local government model commonly used by cities as well as several other counties in Oregon.

“That’s an enormous shift of power to an unelected bureaucrat, basically,” said Doug Robertson, a former Douglas County commissioner. He is now managing the campaign that’s working to defeat the proposed charter. And it’s a campaign that’s reeled in more cash than the pro-charter campaign—by a factor of 10.

That campaign cash is enough to buy slickly produced commercials

The bulk of the contributions to the anti-charter campaign have come from the timber industry. Robertson said that’s perfectly logical.

“It’s no surprise that the people who have done most of the hiring, and the businesses that continue to support our communities and our county and our schools, are concerned about such a dramatic change in the structure of government,” he said.

What exactly is ‘home rule’?

Structure of government is really what’s at stake here. The phrase “home rule” makes it sound like counties without home rule don’t control their own destiny. But according to Rob Bovett of the Association of Oregon Counties, that’s not the case.

“Cities and counties have inherent authority to act on any matter of local concern, unless the legislature has told them they can’t,” he said.

Instead, Bovett said home rule charters in Oregon give counties more flexibility in how they set up their government. For instance, most county clerks in Oregon are elected. In Multnomah County, which has a home rule charter, the clerk is appointed.

So what if, say, you wanted to make dogcatcher an elected position?

“The only way you could do that would be through a county charter,” Bovett said. “You could theoretically create an elected dogcatcher position.”

Bovett said it’s helpful to think of a county charter as a local constitution. Amending it requires voter approval. So does passing it in the first place. And if past history is any indication, supporters of a home rule charter in Douglas County have their work cut out for them. Voters there have rejected the idea three times in the past 50 years.

The Douglas County home rule charter is one of many local issues that will be decided in the November 7 election. The deadline to register in Oregon is October 17.