Charter review commission considers question at recent meeting

Multnomah County voters may be asked to make the Sheriff an appointed instead of elected position at the November General Election.

Or they may not.

The members of the Multnomah County Charter Review Commission, which is considering the question, did not indicate which way they are leaning at their Wednesday meeting. Chair Kirsten Leonard said it was one of several issues that needs more research and will not be decided until June or July, at the earliest.

The two Multnomah County Commissioners who testified at the meeting were split on the question.

Commissioner Judy Shiprack was in favor of making the Sheriff an appointed position. She said elected Sheriffs have not worked closely with the commission on issues ranging from reducing in overtime payments to management of the county’s jails, which are under the Sheriff’s jurisdiction.

“We would gain by having the Sheriff brought into a partnership structurally and not be a stand-alone position,” said Shiprack, who represents District 3, which includes much of East Portland.

But Commissioner Diane McKeel favored keeping the Sheriff an elected position.

“There’s more accountability to the citizens,” said McKeel, who represents District 4, which includes Gresham, other smaller cities, and most of the incorporated part of the county.

No one actually mentioned current Sheriff Dan Staton by name until near the end of the meeting, when one member said he wanted to make sure Staton was invited to testify on the issue. That was surprising, since Staton is currently under criminal investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice for having his staff look up background information on the members online and allegedly threatening violence against those favoring the switch.

Although Wednesday’s meeting was the first since news of the investigation broke, none of the members mentioned it. Staton has denied doing anything wrong, although he has been advised not to discuss the investigation until it is over by both county and personal attorneys.

In fact, the question of whether the Sheriff should be appointed was hardly discussed at all. After Shiprack raised the question of jail management, Vice Chair Victoria Purvine replied that the last three annual Multnomah County Grand Jury report on the jail said management has been improving.

“We talk about, if it ain’t broke, don’t change it, and it seems to be improving,” said Purvine, who also noted that all of the Sheriffs in Oregon, California and Washington are elected. And that was about it.

The Multnomah County Charter requires review commissions to be appointed every six years to consider potential changes. The 15 members are appointed by the state legislators in the county.

One issue that generated more discussion was asking voters to create a position of county manager who would report to the entire County Commission. Such a manager would replace the current chief operating officer, who only reports to the county chair. Both Shiprack and McKeel testified in favor of creating the manager position, noting the commission has had five chairs in the seven years they have have served on it.

“Turnover is a problem,” McKeel said.

Another issue that sparked discussion is whether voters should be asked to ease the current term limits in the County Charter. They limit board member to two four-year terms, and require them to resign if they run for another office, except during the final year of their term. Both Shiprack and McKeel favored eliminating the limits.

“For a commissioner who is not actively engaged, four years is too long. For a commissioner who is actively engaged, eight years is too short,” said Shiprack.

Commission members said the issue needed more research, noting voters have already rejected eliminating the term limits at three election. One compromise mentioned was allowing board members to remain in office if they run for county chair at any time.

Leonard said the members are expected to have potential ballot measures prepared by August.

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