Umatilla County is past due for a review of its home rule charter, the document that establishes the form and functions of county government. The county is working to remedy that.
The charter requires a committee of a least five county citizens to conduct the review every four years. The last review was in 2008.
County counsel Doug Olsen said the board of commissioners have a goal of appointing seven citizens to the review committee by March 1. They would have until July 1, 2019, to deliver a report and any recommendations for changes to the charter.
“They can change any terms of the charter or introduce something different,” Olsen said, while Commissioner George Murdock said the committee “can lay the foundation to restructure county government.”
Olsen and Murdock said commissioners would not serve on the committee so it would be free of their influence. Four locals so far applied to serve on the review committee: former county fair board member Dan Dorran of Hermiston; attorney Sally Anderson Hansell of Hermiston; Darla Huxel, police chief of Umatilla; and Hermiston’s Glenn Youngman, who served as county commissioner when voters adopted the home rule charter in 1992.
Anderson Hansell said she grew interested in serving on the committee after talking with county commissioners about the process and observing Hermiston recently revise its charter.
“The charter is the cornerstone of county government,” she said, and thus worth attending meetings for 16 months to make sure the charter provides the government structure to serve the community now and into the future.
She said she has not read the charter and has no comment on its status. She said she plans on going into the review process with an open mind and would strive to serve the community as best she could.
Oregon in 1958 gave voters the right to adopt charters to organize county governments and prescribe what powers they have and procedures they should follow. According to the Oregon Association of Counties, Umatilla County is one of nine counties operating under home rule. Benton, Clatsop, Hood River, Jackson, Josephine, Lane, Multnomah and Washington are the others. The rest of Oregon counties operate under state laws. Douglas County voters in November rejected home rule.
Umatilla County’s charter runs seven pages, and begins with the preamble:
“We, the people of Umatilla County, Oregon, in order to avail ourselves of self-determination in county affairs to the fullest extent permissible under the constitution and laws of the state, by this charter confer upon the county the following powers, subject it to the following restrictions, and prescribe for it the following procedures and governmental structure...”
The charter establishes the three-member board of nonpartisan commissioners to oversee county government. They, along with the sheriff, are the county’s elective offices. The charter did away with the assessor, clerk, treasurer, and surveyor as elected positions.
“The more elected officials you have, the more fiefdoms that exist,” Murdock said. “I don’t know if I really appreciated that when I became commissioner [in 2013].”
The charter grants the board the power to make local laws, hire and fire department heads and employees, as well as reorganize, combine and abolish departments. The charter dictates the election process, how to fill vacancies and it allows the county to form intergovernmental relations.
Olsen said the first charter review in 1995 resulted in a recommendation to do away with paid, full-time commissioners and instead use five, part-time volunteer commissioners and a full-time county administrator. Voters in 1996 rejected the proposal.
He also said the delay in conducting the review stems in part from changes to the board of commissioners and staff in recent years, but now the ball is rolling. Murdock said the time is right for a review in no small part because he and fellow commissioners Larry Givens and Bill Elfering are seniors.
Youngman said it was high time for the review and there is no excuse for the delay. He said he pushed in the mid-1990s for the change to a county manager system of government and continues to advocate for that.
“I feel it should come back before the voters and give them a chance to vote on it,” he said.
Given his stance, Youngman said, the county might not appoint him. But government is becoming more complicated year after year, with changes to state and federal law that affect the local level. A professional, full time manager would be better suited for dealing with those changes, he asserted, along with the county’s $74 million budget, while a board of five to seven members would set policy and have the power to hire and fire the manager.
“The way it is now, the board is the policymaker and the manager of county government,” he said. “I don’t think you can wear two hats.”
Youngman said he would keep the sheriff as an elected official because the people should have the right to make that choice, but otherwise it was time for the county to move out from under a 19th century structure and operate more like city governments. He also said the review committee needs to be transparent and not operate behind closed doors.
The board of commissioners decide whether recommendations warrant getting on a ballot. If they do, county voters have the final approval of amendments to the charter.
“We just present the recommendations, and the board can turn it down,” Youngman said, “But I think there would be some problems.”
Olsen said Oregon law may prevent completely removing commissioners, but the committee can recommend what form their roles take. Murdock said he is looking forward to having a diverse panel of citizens examine how the charter is working more than 25 years after it was written.
“If it takes a new form it takes a new form,” Murdock said, “We can be pragmatic about that.”
If you would like to serve on the Umatilla County Charter Review Committee, the application can be found at: http://www.co.umatilla.or.us/bcc/notices/CharterReviewApplication.pdf