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Five commissioners and five other elected officials speak at a state of the county event open to the public; 250 attend new format at Conestoga Recreation and Aquatic Center

PMG PHOTO BY PETER WONG - Board Chairwoman Kathryn Harrington, center, speaks during a program featuring all Washington County governemt elected officials. From left: Commissioners Dick Schouten, Pam Treece, Roy Rogers and Jerry Willey; District Attorney Kevin Barton, Sheriff Pat Garrett and Auditor John Hutzler are on the other side. The program was April 17 at Conestoga Recreation and Aquatic Center in Beaverton.Washington County tried something new last week to inform the public about what county government does.

New Board Chairwoman Kathryn Harrington invited not only her four colleagues to share the stage, but also five other officials elected countywide — including one paid by the state — to talk about what they do.

About 250 people heard the 10 officials speak for more than an hour April 17 at Conestoga Recreation and Aquatic Center in Beaverton.

In recent years, then-Chairman Andy Duyck offered his state of the county remarks at a breakfast forum of the Westside Economic Alliance, and also at smaller events such as the Washington County Public Affairs Forum. The larger forum often employed a video with comments from the other four commissioners, who usually attended, but none spoke on stage.

As Harrington campaigned for and won Duyck's open seat last year, she said she found many voters lacked a clear idea of what county government does, even though it employs 2,000 people and has an annual budget topping $1 billion.

"We decided that this was a good new year to try something new," she told the audience.

"A key initiative for me for Washington County as your chair is transparency and public engagement. To me, good government means accessible government.

"We cannot do that if we do not see you or hear from you."

Harrington said she and the county's communications team came up with a different format, modeled partly on what Clackamas County has done in recent years with all five commissioners speaking, not just the board chairman.

But she took it a step further.

"This was an opportunity not only for me to share my vision with the people I serve, but for the whole spectrum of elected officials who help govern this county. I felt it was important to give it a try," she told the audience.

She said afterward that not only did her board colleagues say yes, so did Auditor John Hutzler, District Attorney Kevin Barton, Sheriff Pat Garrett and two judges, Charles Bailey of Circuit Court and Dan Cross of Justice Court.

"I thought: Why not? We'll give it a whirl. And it worked."

Circuit Court judges and staff are paid by the state, which assumed operation of trial courts in 1983, although counties still furnish the buildings and provide security.

Most officials limited themselves to five minutes each, excluding Harrington's opening and closing remarks.

During her campaign, Harrington also mentioned the possibility of rotating some of the board's Tuesday business meetings to communities other than the county seat of Hillsboro. So far, though, the only change has been in the length of work sessions — when business cannot be transacted — preceding the business meetings. Both types are open to the public, but public comment is limited to business meetings.

Here's a recap of what the five commissioners had to say about key topics. Highlights by other elected officials will be offered next week.

PMG PHOTO BY PETER WONG - Board Chairwoman Kathryn Harrington speaks at a state of Washington County program April 17 at Conestoga Recreation and Aquatic Center in Beaverton. At right are District Attorney Kevin Barton and Sheriff Pat Garrett.Chairwoman Harrington restated her campaign pledge for county government to reach out to minorities and others who have been underserved, but did not offer specifics. She noted that the county's population — ranked second only to Multnomah County — is the most diverse of Oregon's urban counties with growing Latino and Asian populations.

"Our diversity is a strength and a cause for celebration," she said. "We must continue to evolve our service delivery for everyone who makes up our community. We have a responsibility to build up a more inclusive and equitable access and outcomes for those who have been historically underserved and underrepresented."

Commissioner Dick Schouten said the housing shortage has eased slightly since 2014, when an estimated 75,000 people were paying more than 30% of their incomes on housing costs. That mark is set by the federal government as "affordable."

Now, he said, it's down to 70,000, still about the combined populations of Tigard and Sherwood.

"We think a job-rich economy and a slightly cooling housing market have helped that," said Schouten, who has been on the board since 2001.

The area median income for a family of four in the county was $74,600, according to the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census.

Voter approval of a $653 million regional bond will help Washington County build 1,300 more housing units for low-income households, although Beaverton and Hillsboro — which will get separate shares — account for about 500 of that total.

"The bottom line is that we are making some progress when it comes to affordable housing in our community," Schouten said. "But much more work needs to be done."

As for homelessness, Schouten said while overall totals since 2013 have dipped, chronic homelessness persists and requires services such as addiction treatment and mental health counseling to be linked with housing.

"I am confident ... we can make significant progress in the next couple of years."

Commissioner Roy Rogers represents the county on two key boards: Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation for Metro, the regional planning agency, and the regional Area Commission for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

In addition, Washington County has a transportation development tax, a Major Streets Transportation Improvement Program funded by a share of property taxes originally approved by voters decades ago, and a county vehicle registration fee that is collected with the state fee every other year.

"We finally had funds to do something," said Rogers, who has been on the county board since 1985. "It's all based on partnerships and relationships within the region, and patience and persistence."

Rogers said more needs to be done — balanced among public transportation, sidewalks and bike lanes, and street and highway improvements — and offered a long wish list of specific projects. Among them are the Southwest Corridor light rail extension from Portland to Bridgeport Village in Tualatin, additions to Highway 217 — a state project that is set to get underway in 2020 — and a new northern corridor to bypass central Portland and divert traffic from the Sunset Highway to the Port of Portland and beyond.

"We have a full plate," he said. "But I think we can do it if we put some muscle behind it."

Commissioner Pam Treece, who took office in January, said her four top priorities are housing, transportation, public health and the environment, and diversity, equity and inclusion.

During her remarks she focused on two ongoing efforts.

About 20 agencies are involved in the Tualatin Watershed Enhancement Collaborative to deal with flooding and improve watersheds in Cedar Mill and North Johnson creeks, which cover unincorporated areas in her district north of Beaverton.

She said: "As community members, what we can expect to see is a three-year work plan coming from this collaborative that will help guide us in making policy, creating projects to help us with resiliency against flooding, and addressing environmental improvement and support for financial security within the watershed."

As part of a regional push to reduce suicides, Treece said, the county is building on award-winning work by county epidemiologist Kimberly Repp to develop indicators, such as at-risk people surrendering their healthy pets without explanation to animal shelter workers.

"This intervention step has reduced suicides and has been identified as a nationwide model," she said.

Commissioner Jerry Willey, who also took office in January, said this year is critical for two ongoing projects.

One is a study of alternatives for Scoggins Dam, which the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has identified at serious risk if there is a major earthquake. The alternatives boil down to enhancing the current earthfill dam or building a new roller-compacted concrete dam downstream with additional storage capacity for Hagg Lake.

The county board is involved because it governs Clean Water Services, the sewage and stormwater treatment agency for the county's urban areas, which seeks additional water for the Tualatin River.

"This dam needs a little help," Willey said.

"This is a huge project that requires collaboration from our federal partners, our regional partners and Clean Water Services. You are going to have to stay tuned to see what the preferred alternative is for options."

That alternative is scheduled to be identified by the end of this year.

Work has already begun on the Event Center at the Washington County Fair Complex in Hillsboro. (Willey was Hillsboro mayor from 2009 to 2017.) When completed in 2020, the center will offer the largest public space in Washington County for exhibits, trade shows and other activities in addition to the annual fair.

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