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Confusion common as citizens try to contact the right government agency

A guide to levels of government in the United States
Jade McDowell

East Oregonian

Published on November 9, 2017 12:01AM

Last changed on November 9, 2017 10:23PM

If your street has a pothole or the new factory next door smells like vomit, it can be hard to know who to call for help.

The most passionate Facebook rant in the world might get a gratifying amount of likes, but that pothole will stay as long as the government agency in charge of the road doesn’t know about it. So who exactly is “the government” and how can you make sure you hear your well-reasoned treatise on why the neighborhood park needs another restroom?


City officials in small towns are often so accessible, you might have a chance to complain to them in the grocery store.

Hermiston city councilor John Kirwan cites constituent feedback while discussing ordinances with his fellow council members, and some of it does, indeed, come from the grocery store. Other feedback comes from people in restaurants or at work, in addition to more official contacts like email and city open houses.

“I interact with people all the time,” he said.

Kirwan said he always take those comments into consideration, but it’s also helpful for people to show up to bimonthly city council meetings and get those comments on the public record in front of the entire council.

In most cities in Umatilla County, a paid city manager hired by the city council runs day to day operations, supervising department heads over areas like roads, water/sewer, parks, police and the library. The city manager is supervised by an elected city council and mayor.

Kirwan said some of the most frequent feedback the city hears from residents includes code enforcement, road maintenance, traffic problems and construction projects. Sometimes the problem falls outside city limits and is actually a county issue, however.

“I think sometimes people get confused because we have so many people who consider themselves Hermiston residents but don’t live in city limits,” he said.

Kirwan said if people are unsure, it’s always better to call city hall and have someone help them find the right person to talk to than to not contact anyone at all.


If one of those pesky potholes isn’t in city limits, it might be a county issue. Umatilla County’s government — run by three paid, elected county commissioners who oversee department heads — covers roads, the sheriff’s office, code enforcement and other issues outside city limits, as well as services like the district attorney’s office, health department and tax office.

Commission chair Larry Givens said code enforcement is always a “hot-button issue” that the county gets a lot of calls about, along with information about burn days, both of which fall under the county’s planning department.

Givens said county commissioners and staff get calls “all the time” about things that are actually a state issue, like rules by the Department of Environmental Quality.

“They’ll be wanting to know about traffic on state highways, and we’ll have to tell them we have no jurisdiction over them,” he said.

Information about each county department is listed on the Umatilla County website, and Givens said it can be helpful for people to check that out before calling the courthouse.


If the pothole that wrecked your car’s alignment was on an interstate, that falls under the state.

Sen. Bill Hansell is one of 30 senators that pass laws for the state with a 60-person house of representatives, before those laws are sent to the governor to be signed or vetoed. State legislators can also step in and help citizens navigate the vast maze of state agencies or get the attention of someone in one of those agencies. Hansell said people frequently call him or his staff about federal issues like veterans services, which he refers to Oregon’s congressional delegation, but he doesn’t mind people calling “about any issue.” If someone has an idea for a state law, Hansell wants to hear about it.

“We actually solicit bills,” he said. “We say, if you have an idea or a concern, please contact us.”

Out of the bills Hansell worked on last session, 36 were constituent bills, 33 he was asked to sign onto by colleagues and seven were proposed by lobbyists representing interests in eastern Oregon.

If constituents want to weigh in on a law already proposed, Hansell’s staff creates a file for every bill during sessions, and any feedback goes into the file, whether it’s an email or notes from a phone conversation.

“It’s very helpful because sometimes a bill is coming through that will be detrimental to our area and that gets it on our radar,” he said.


Federal leaders can be harder to get ahold of — you’re not likely to run into President Donald Trump at the grocery store or reach him by phone — but each citizen is represented by their state’s two senators and the representative for their Congressional district. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Rep. Greg Walden all appear in Umatilla County at least once per year for town hall meetings, and they have regional offices with staff who can take down feedback or provide assistance with a federal agency.

Special Districts

In some cases, government can take the form of a district. Schools, for example, are run by an elected school board with no oversight or budget input by the city or county. In Pendleton, the fire department is run by the city, but in Hermiston, fire and ambulance services are provided by a district run by a separate elected board. Pendleton’s cemetery is run by the city’s parks office, while Hermiston’s cemetery is run by an elected cemetery board with no city oversight. Ports, dispatch centers and mosquito control are other common special districts.


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