PENDLETON - Local elected officials are putting their efforts behind the Eastern Oregon Rural Alliance, hoping the group will heighten the region's visibility in the state Capitol.
The group includes representatives from county and city governments, school boards, water districts and other branches of local government, Gilliam County Judge Laura Pryor said.
"It's a vehicle that gives us a voice and gives us a way to enter the dialogue in a legitimate way," Pryor said.
Pryor is chairwoman of the alliance, which began when county commissioners and other elected officials met in John Day on an informal basis. The group now is becoming more formalized, but is not without precedence.
"The idea of having an entity that is representative in a geographical region of representatives from a broader interest is not a new thing," she said.
The group also is working to create an Office of Rural Policy. State sens. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, and David Nelson, R-Pendleton, are working to pass legislation creating the office.
"It would be putting a presence within the governor's office, because with policy decisions they need to be considering what is going on in rural Oregon," Nelson said. "Sometimes rural Oregon has not received the attention it should have."
Pryor said the office would give legislators a place to quickly get information on how policy would affect rural Oregon.
"I think that so often our little cities are lost, they are forgotten," she said. "The smaller jurisdictions really have a very difficult time entering the discussion, so we better pay attention to that because ... even those 500 people matter."
While she acknowledged the state was in a budget crunch, the cost to rural Oregon is justified, Pryor said.
"I don't think we have ever needed it more," she said. "We are living in a county that has demographics that look like Appalachia. We are fighting for our existence and fighting for our survival."
Keith Woods, a member of the Milton-Freewater City Council, said the alliance and the proposed Office of Rural Policy are valuable as communication tools.
"The goal is to have some sort of site that people could go to and get information about issues," he said.
Rural Oregon encompassesan area the size of Pennsylvania with a population of half a million, he said.
"If half a million people live in a scattered area they have no voice, but if they communicate with each other they do have a voice," Woods said.
Woods pointed to the potential consolidation of the 9-1-1 system as an example of a statewide issue that has real consequences for the residents of Milton-Freewater.
While the majority of Oregon is rural, most of the legislation is crafted from the urban perspective, Umatilla County Commissioner Emile Holeman said. The urban areas have a loud voice in politics by virtue of their population concentration.
Set backs in funding or grants can send small cities into downward spirals, causing an erosion of their already declining population base.
"It's an effort to shore up some of that," Woods said.
While Holeman has attended the Rural Alliance meetings for several years, they have started to move to monthly.
"It's off and running and gathering a little steam," Holeman said. "I think it will be a force."