The Time for Non-Partisan County Commissioners Is Now

I called for the non-partisan election of County Commissioners at the only major, pre-primary forum that included the Democratic candidates. Therefore, it’s gratifying to see Tammy Baney has now taken up the issue. My hope is her fellow commissioners will join us and put the matter before voters in November.

We are stronger when we are united by our common values and shared goals than when we are divided by partisanship. It’s time to make this happen.

While I agree with the Bulletin’s June 3 editorial that the County should initiate a robust discussion of our charter, with the possibility of placing a home rule initiative on the ballot in the future, there is no need to wait on the issue of non-partisan commissioner elections. The issue is — unlike a broad rewriting of our charter — simple to explain, easy to understand and, in my experience, widely supported. By moving first to minimize the role of partisanship in County politics before moving to the more complex issue of the charter, we can make the broader discussion less polarizing and more productive.

While serving Redmond, I have found partisanship rarely plays a productive role in local issues. The saying “potholes have no politics” is true and applies to every major issue — from public safety to land use — our cities and county face.

Partisan elections for commissioner are an artifact of a time when the population was small, and the powers and responsibilities of counties were few and narrow. In less politically polarized times, there was little urgency to change the system, since Deschutes County elected centrists who governed based upon the county good, rather than partisan ideology.

However, the partisan landscape has changed. As people have become alienated by hyper-partisanship and chosen not to affiliate with either major party, the current partisan primaries have disenfranchised a third of county voters and, combined with low turnout, allowed only 7% of registered voters to choose my Republican challenger.

In addition, since the Democratic candidates were excluded from most forums and pre-primary interviews, the public debate focused narrowly on issues defined by the Republican Party, which represents only one-third of our population. Moderating and opposing voices were effectively excluded from the conversation.

Citizen involvement is one of the most serious challenges facing local governments, yet people are withdrawing from the political process because they feel their representatives are not responsive to their needs and no longer reflect their values. We cannot afford to maintain a system that excludes a third of our voters from playing a role in selecting their representatives on the Deschutes County Board of Commissioners.

We should act now. I propose a three-step process.

  1. Place an initiative on the November ballot to fill county commissioner positions on future ballots through non-partisan elections. If no candidate for a position receives over fifty percent of the vote, the top two candidates advance to a runoff. If adopted, this would allow non-partisan elections to begin in 2020.
  2. Begin a discussion about the proper number (the current three or five), representation (county-wide or by district), role (full or part-time) and compensation (currently almost $90,000 per year) for Commissioners, with the intent of submitting the results to the voters in 2020.
  3. Initiate a discussion about the need for changes to the county charter in order to put a revised charter before the voters in 2022, if it is determined one is needed.

By starting with the simple and much needed change to non-partisan elections, we can begin to build the trust and coalitions needed to tackle more difficult questions about our county’s structure as we move into a challenging future.

We are stronger when we are united by our common values and shared goals than when we are divided by partisanship. It’s time to make this happen.

Originally published in the Bend Bulletin June 19, 2018

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