Now in position with Association of Oregon Counties, Mary Stern is proud of her accomplishments

Nearly 22 years ago, Mary Stern was temporarily reassigned to Sheridan from her position with the Department of Justice in San Francisco. She immediately fell in love with the area and has never looked back.

Now, her three-term stint as Yamhill County commissioner has come to an end as she starts a new position with the Association of Oregon Counties, but she said she’s proud of all she accomplished in her 11 and a half years on the board.

“The first thing I think would be the meth task force,” Stern said of the accomplishments she is most proud of. “In 2005, we had a real problem in the county with methamphetamine. Meth labs were popping up in hotel rooms, in homes, in cars.”

So she joined others in coordinating a prevention and education seminar, as well as concentrating focus on the issue. There was also a levy, which failed in 2006, to put additional funding toward the outreach project.Stern

“Even though it failed I don’t think it was a failure, because we made a commitment here to try and increase law enforcement,” Stern said. “We received grants from the federal government for treatment. I think just the awareness it created was one of the first successes I felt strongly about and really enjoyed.”

More recently, she said, she’s really proud of her work with the Evidence Based Decision Making Initiative.

“We’re one of seven counties nationwide doing this so it’s a big deal,” she said. “It’s what I think we should be doing. Policy leaders in government should really be looking at data and information to make decisions about how we’re spending our money.”

Few regrets

There aren’t many things she said she wished to have done differently, but there’s one issue that still stands out for Stern.

“I’m sorry to be leaving a lot of things behind but … I knew my time was coming to an end. One thing we didn’t do that I’d really like to have done, (was stop the approval of the) Grand Island gravel pit,” she said. “The land use permit was approved, I voted against but the other two (commissioners) voted for it. It’s the weirdest thing. In state regulations that in order to say gravel is a significant source there has to be a certain depth to the gravel that’s under the farmland. The depth here in Yamhill County is like 45 feet. Across the river — the same gravel just a stone’s throw away in Marion County is 75 feet — it should be uniform. It just always irked me. Our farmland is just as precious as in Marion County, so why are we held to different standards by the state?”

Politics on the board

Although she doesn’t list it in the regret category, Stern said she wishes some of the politics had been handled differently, specifically the negative campaigning during the 2010 election.

“When Mary Starrett was running against me and running a nasty campaign, Commissioner (Leslie) Lewis videotaped me, that was a horrible, horrible time,” she said. “To think someone you work with every single day is willing to illegally videotape you in a meeting that’s supposed to be private and giving it to your opponent where it’s chopped up and edited to make it sound like I was saying things I wasn’t saying, it was just awful.”

She said she couldn’t look at Lewis for two weeks after the tapes were released.

“I would move my chair so she was never in my line of sight,” she said. “After about two weeks our poor staff was on edge. I couldn’t do this to them, it’s not fair. For the sake of staff and my own sanity I said forget it, it’s just not important anymore.”

Aside from that instance — and another involving Lewis and investigations eventually resulting in the public asking for her resignation — politics didn’t cause much tension. But that may have just been due to how she handled the situation.

“When I was elected (in 2002) it was a partisan position,” she said. “At the same time it was on the ballot to make it non-partisan and that passed overwhelmingly. So I was the last party election, and it shouldn’t be partisan.”

As the lone Democrat, she said she was often the single, losing vote.

“Frankly, I didn’t mind. It’s not like I started to cry every time I was the loser in the 2-1 vote. We make the decision and we move on,” she said. “I didn’t feel badly about it. There were of course some that were more difficult than others, but what can you do, that’s the political environment. When you’re in the minority you rarely win.”

One way that issue could be eliminated is through restructuring the board, something Stern has supported in the past.

“In a way I think it could be better if we have one chair who was elected county wide and then four part-time county commissioners who each came from different parts of the county so there’s always some different representation for the county. But no one else (on the board) had any interest,” Stern said.

Moving forward

In her new position, as community development/transportation policy manager for the Association of Oregon Counties, she will be working to ensure every county has representation at the Legislature.

“It’s great people and I’d still get to work with the community I got to know and love,” she said. “It seemed like a good fit and I get to use my skills and knowledge to help the people of Oregon, without having to run for office.”

Before even starting officially, she said issues were arising that she would work on, including the Highway Trust Fund.

“Transportation is going to be a huge issue for the next biennium,” Stern said. “We’re looking at the Highway Trust Fund being bankrupt at the end of the summer. It’s really very unfortunate it’s gotten to this point, so I’ll be working on those issues.”

New commissioner

Since Stern is vacating her term six months early, someone will be appointed to fill her position until the November election. After the primary, the standout candidate was Starrett, the candidate who’d run a negative campaign against Stern four years ago.

“I saw a difference with her between my campaign and this one,” she said. “She took the teabags off her sign and I heard her speak at a forum about knowing the county employees provide great service here. She said we weren’t the stereotypical government entity. I hope she meant that and will open herself up to learning about what the people do in this county and how hard they work in county government and how fortunate we are to live here.”

Stern said she also hopes if Starrett is appointed to her position in the interim that the voters understand the hot button issues brought into the race have little place in county government.

“I think people will learn that county government really has little say in guns and abortion and those decisive issues that they used to stir up voters at election time,” she said. “That isn’t what this is about. It isn’t about partisanship, it isn’t about scare tactics. We do important work and I hope she will enjoy it as much as I have and get as much out of it as I have.”

Final reflections

Politics aside, Stern said she’s thoroughly enjoyed her time on the board.

“It’s been almost 12 years, that’s a long time in the same job. I’ve never had a job that long,” she said. “It’s just been a wonderful experience. I can’t help but think about it in terms of my daughter being this cute little toddler. When I first decided to get involved, she was 2. So she’s grown up in this. I feel like it was an extended family, the county, and watching her grow it’s been really fun and great to look at it that way. It’s been such an honor to do this and I’ve loved the job, even when it was horrible dealing with personalities. I appreciate being given the opportunity to do that.”

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