HERMISTON — Two out of three Umatilla County commissioners support the county having a professional manager, but only one voted to put the proposal on the ballot.
Commissioners, however, approved two other charter changes for residents to consider at the November election. One ballot measure would simplify elections of commissioners and the other would update language and duties regarding the sheriff’s office.
The trio of proposals came from the Umatilla County Charter Review Committee, which over the course of 19 months studied the charter and considered how to improve the county’s founding document. The committee’s most controversial recommendation would have established language in the charter requiring the board of commissioners to hire a manager. Commissioner Bill Elfering seemed to agree with the notion.
“The time has come that Umatilla County needs an officer to manage the administrate functions of our county,” Elfering said, reading from a statement he prepared.
Yet, he continued, the board of commissioners already has the power to hire a manager, just as it can hire a county counsel. Making this a requirement of the board, he said, is the concern, and the proposal lacks the preparation to go before the voters.
“While the concept truly has value, the position of a county manager needs to be fully developed as to function, cost and benefit,” he said, “and fully vetted to the public.”
Without that preparation, he stated, the measure likely would fail in the election.
Commissioner John Shafer also spoke against the proposal. He expressed concerns about the cost of a manager. Clatsop County, he said, with half the population of Umatilla County, hired a new manager for $160,000 a year plus benefits. He also said he would not want a manager to act as a barrier between commissioners and the public, a problem the county had under a previous board that used an administrator as a de facto buffer.
Commissioner George Murdock stuck to his stance of support for the review committee’s recommendations.
“As I indicated publicly since day one, it is my intent to honor the work of that committee,” he said. “I also believe strongly that a matter of this magnitude relative to how Umatilla County is governed should be commended to the voters for their input rather than decided by the commissioners.”
And on that, the board voted 2-1 against putting the measure on the ballot.
The board also split 2-1 in favor of letting voters decide on revising commissioner elections.
The review committee’s recommendation continues the standard of electing commissioners in the November general election. But if no more than two candidates seek the office, there would be no May primary election and the candidates would advance to the November general. If more than two run, the two with the most votes face off in the general.
Shafer cast the dissenting vote. He advocated for using the state’s language on elections, which would declare a winner in May if a candidate won with more than 50 percent of the vote.
The three commissioners united in favor of a ballot measure to revise the charter to use “Sheriff’s Office” rather than “Law Enforcement Department” while specifying the sheriff’s functions according to Oregon law.
The issue of a county manager, however, is not dead. Michele Grable, who headed up the charter review committee, told the board it should follow Elfering’s suggestion to develop the concept.
“You said we need more study on the matter, well, let’s study it,” she said.
Murdock said the board at its next meeting will decide what reconsideration looks like.