Salary review speaks to philosophical rift on WashCo board
Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part story examining how the Washington County Board of Commissioners has changed over the past four years. Read the first part here.
Washington County voters approved a charter review nearly two years ago that resulted in higher pay and expanded job responsibilities for county commissioners.
But the question of pay remains a sticking point — one of the five commissioners has declined to take the pay increase, a decision he says he stands by. And commissioners say the salary review process is just one aspect of current efforts to modernize the county government.
"It's more of a social service organization," said Commissioner Roy Rogers, before offering a comparison to the only county in Oregon with more residents than fast-growing Washington County: "Is that bad? Not necessarily. That's what Multnomah County did."
He added, "And if the big cities are going to be the dominant player … then what you'll find is to have the county commission be more of a social services organization."
A former Tualatin mayor, Rogers has represented District 3 — most of southern Washington County — for nearly 40 years. He's not only the longest-serving member of the board, he's the longest-tenured county commissioner in Oregon.
This expanding of the role of Washington County has translated to a corresponding increase in the commissioners' roles. That's what led four of the sitting commissioners in 2020 to support a charter review that looked at paying board members a full-time salary. Voters approved the review that November.
Among the county commissioners, Rogers was the lone vote in opposition, saying that other options should have been explored first. Now, he's voluntarily working fewer hours and being paid less than the other board members.
"I intend to continue to serve District 3 in the same manner as I have … therefore, I voluntarily will take a reduction in salary to a salary of $60,375 for the 2021-22 fiscal year instead of the $115,000 established by the Salary Commission," Rogers wrote in a letter nearly a year ago to county administrator Tanya Ange, dated May 21, 2021.
Rogers argues that the increase in salary and hours amounts to making commissioners "full-time, paid politicians." He says he thinks that contributes to more partisanship on the county board.
Other commissioners say it's fine that Rogers wants to continue in the same role he's held for decades — and to keep a lower pay as a result. But they still think the move was a necessary part of bringing the county into the 21st century.
Salary as a flashpoint
That salary increase for the county board came after voters in November 2020 approved a ballot measure that formed a salary commission tasked with determining the new commissioner salaries. It was comprised of five employment and human resources experts.
The commission met during the first part of 2021 to hash out the salary and charter language, comparing what other similarly sized counties pay their commissioners. They looked at Multnomah, Clackamas, Marion and Lane counties, as well as Pierce and Snohomish counties in Washington.
None of the comparator counties have part-time commissioners, and none of them paid their board members less than $80,000 a year.
Previously, Washington County commissioners were paid 40% the salary of the county chair — the only full-time position on the board prior to the changes. The chair's salary, likewise, was based off 80% of a circuit court judge's salary, which is set by the Oregon Department of Justice.
Before the creation of the salary commission, pay amounted to $123,753 for the chair and $49,501 for the other commissioners. Now, commissioners make $115,000 a year while the chair makes $126,500.
The charter amendments state that the salary commission must reconvene in odd-numbered years to weigh any further increase or recalibration of commissioner salaries.
Support for increase
Excluding Rogers, all four of the other Washington County commissioners, including Chair Kathryn Harrington, backed the move to form a salary commission and designate commissioners as full-time.
Their argument? Better pay provides for more people to run for office — not to mention that officially designating Washington County commissioner as a full-time job more accurately describes the workload they have on the governing board of Oregon's second-most populous county.
That's particularly true for Nafisa Fai. Elected in 2020, Fai is the mother of three young boys. She says she would have had to work a second job to afford to serve on a part-time commission that was paid its usual salary.
At the time she ran for office, voters had yet to approve the move, and when Fai took office in January 2021, the salary commission's work wasn't yet done. The charter changes codified by the commission didn't take effect until July 2021.
"I knew that I was going to have two part-time jobs — one that's as a county commissioner and one that's to bring full-time income in for my family," said Fai, who represents Beaverton- and Aloha-based District 1. "So, that was always the reality of me running for this position. But I love my job, and I'm glad that I get compensated. It's so much easier to have one job rather than two jobs."
Fai said the shift to full-time also means that she's been able to focus more on delivering progress to her constituents.
"It made it easier for me to focus and concentrate on delivering immediate results to our constituents," Fai said, adding that she has worked to hold meetings with underrepresented groups and encourage more public meetings with people who have previously been left out of the conversation — either because they were never invited or because county operations didn't make it easy for them to attend.
Commissioner Pam Treece, who represents District 2 in northern Washington County, echoed Fai's sentiments.
"We were part-time and all working second jobs," said Treece, who also served as executive director of the Westside Economic Alliance at the time she was first elected to the board. She remained executive director until last year, when the commissioner job officially became full-time.
"We couldn't really focus the full amount of time or attention on the work that needed to be done for the constituents," Treece added. "I kept hearing many of them saying they didn't realize we weren't full-time."
Treece said she pushed hard for a salary review, and to make the positions full-time, because Washington County's system was a relic of a bygone era. The fastest-growing county in Oregon was doing business differently than any of the other densely populated areas of the state.
"We were one of the few counties in the state that didn't have a full-time commission in relation to the size of the county," she said. "When you look at when the charter was written, it was when this was still a largely agricultural county, one that had something like 100,000 people. Now, we are the second-largest county in the state and projected even to overtake Multnomah County in 10 years or so."
Treece called it "antiquated" to not have full-time commissioners who dedicated their time to doing the business of the county. Prior to this reimagining of their roles, many of the day-to-day decisions were dealt with by department heads and the county administrator, with little more than a stamp of approval needed from the board.
Other commissioners agreed with this assessment and said that the function of the board quickly changed after Harrington took the gavel in 2019.
"The county administrator really ran more of the business of the government, while we on the commission more stayed in our lane and focused on the policy," said District 4 Commissioner Jerry Willey. "But that immediately changed with Kathryn. We immediately became more of a full-time board, and our work sessions started to last all day or even multiple days."
Harrington pointed specifically to making board agendas publicly available, as well as implementing changes in the flow of communication so that all members of the board could weigh in on decisions.
"What we quickly learned was there was a lot going on that the board did not have knowledge or visibility on, nor did the public," Harrington said of when she first joined the board. "And I had campaigned on specific community needs, as well as openness and transparency."
She added, "Gone are the days where the county administrator and chair would make policy without board awareness. That is all public now."
One of many changes
The changes at the county level go beyond just the salary adjustment. The county government has expanded many of its departments and the services they offer.
The county has its first-ever economic development office, formed in 2019, as well as an Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, which seeks to address disparities in access to government services between different demographic groups.
For instance, native English-speakers tend to participate in local government at higher rates and often feel more confident in speaking with county officials than those who don't speak English as a first language, such as immigrants from Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.
With those changes come more responsibilities for commissioners, Harrington said, so it's natural to increase their compensation accordingly.
Plus, she and other commissioners framed the salary issue as an important way to make government more equitable.
"People in my income background, and in all the various identities that I hold, we can't afford to be in these roles and then also not make money," said Fai, a refugee from Somalia. She's the first Black person and the first Muslim elected to the board.
Treece said Fai's experience is precisely the kind that she hoped to address in pushing for a salary review.
"I wanted to make sure that we had a commission where somebody could run for office and be able to have a family wage job so that so that they could support their family," she said.
Harrington said that the changes in Washington County governance are long overdue, and she's not surprised that these moves have been met with resistance.
"There's been just phenomenal improvements over just three years' time. It's very exciting," Harrington said. "But it's not been without resistance. There are many people who are interested in maintaining the status quo and continuing with what they know."
Opposition to increase
Rogers conceded that his circumstances as a certified public accountant and owner of his own firm, without young children to raise, means he can afford to take a lower salary than other working-class constituents might be able to in the same job.
"You can say, 'Well, that's easy to say when you get to a certain age,' and I guess that's true, but I would have just listened and said let's go really part-time, or let's double our numbers and let's meet in Saturday session when the public can be around anyway," he said.
Rogers takes issue both with the way the board of commissioners handled the salary review and how he feels it will shape which candidates run for county commissioner in the future.
"I think … what happens when you are 100% reliant on that income, meaning that becomes your way of life, aren't you more susceptible to dealing with issues in such a way that you try to not offend anyone and gain the support of everyone, because that's your livelihood?" Rogers said.
He also felt that there were other ways to address these same problems without giving commissioners more money. For instance, if the time commitment was too great for folks to not have to work multiple jobs, the county could have explored options that better defined the number of hours commissioners could expect to work, he suggested, or adopted policies that keep meetings shorter.
"If that's the argument, then why don't we figure out how to do it so we don't exclude the most people?" Rogers said. "Have our meetings at nights, or let's have instead of five commissioners, let's have 10 or so and the load gets cut down. None of that was explored."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.