The Crook County Court decision reverses implementation of the term limits in 2009

After spending several weeks considering a contested ordinance that removes Crook County Planning Commission chairperson term limits, county commissioners approved Ordinance 266 on Wednesday.

In 2009, the county court adopted Ordinance 212, which limited the time a planning commissioner can serve as chair to two one-year terms. The current planning commission recently recommended removal of the term limit following a unanimous vote. This spawned consideration of Ordinance 266, the law the commissioners ultimately approved, which restates Ordinance 212 without the term limit provision.

Approval of the new law came after a second public hearing in which several people voiced their opposition.

Prineville resident Craig Brookhart, speaking on behalf of the locally-based Central Oregon Patriots, said that term limits encourage a governing body to grow individuals into a leadership role and helps generate new ideas.

“I understand that the planning commission wants to elect their own leaders, and it’s in their best interests to do so,” Brookhart said. “But, they do set the tone and tenor of meetings, and if there are people standing on the sidelines who would like to move into one of these boards and you have an ongoing person holding that position, that preclude others from wanting to join.”

Darlene Harpster, a Prineville resident who regularly attends planning commission meetings, advocated the term limits on the basis that it reduces complacency.

“As a member of the public, I know what it’s like to be comfortable — to let someone else do the leading,” she said. “Is that really what we want?”

Following testimony in favor of term limits, county planning commissioner John Sundell defended the recommendation to remove them. He acknowledged that term limits may be appropriate for offices such as the President of the United States, but does not believe it should apply to the chairperson for county boards.

“I personally don’t think that makes any sense,” he said.

Sundell went on to rebut statements made by Brookhart and other dissenters. Regarding the need to groom new leaders, he noted that all seven current planning commissioners were capable of serving as chair if they so chose. Sundell went on to acknowledge that the chairperson sets the tone of the meeting, but refuted the notion that they influence commission business. He insisted that if a chairperson tried to influence a decision, the other commissioners would likely vote the opposite way.

“So, this whole focus on the chairman term limits for two years is just kind of nuts,” Sundell said in summary. “We don’t want an additional rule, regulation, or restriction. COP (the Patriots) claim they want small government, but they are going in the opposite direction.”

In addition to term limit concerns, Brookhart questioned the county’s use of the “rule of necessity” in 2011 that allowed planning commission chair Bill Gowen to retain his post after reaching the end of his allotted term under Ordinance 212.

At the time, no other planning commissioner wanted to be chair, so Dave Gordon, who was Crook County Counsel at the time, allowed Gowen to continue serving as chair under the “rule of necessity.”

“The example he (Gordon) gave . . . was that it was a way to recuse oneself,” Brookhart said. “The example he used was a Supreme Court that has too many conflicts of interest and they can make a decision . . . so you recuse yourself.”

Brookhart said he researched the rule of necessity further and found that in Massachusetts, it is recommended as a last resort and that improper use could result in a violation of conflict of interest laws.

“We are trying to dig ourselves out of a hole with this whole rule of necessity thing,” he said, “which is probably even more important to the COP than the actual term limits itself.”

After taking public comment, the county commissioners closed the public hearing, and approved Ordinance 266 without further discussion.

Typically, an approved ordinance does not take effect for 90 days. However, because Gowen’s current chair term concludes on Dec. 31, before 90 days will have passed, the county approved the ordinance with an emergency clause that enables it to take effect at any time after its approval.

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