Voters may decide if county commission is increased to five members
The Yamhill County Board of Commissioners took the first step toward increasing its numbers from three to five last week when it directed staff to draft an ordinance in anticipation of referring the issue to the county's electorate.
"Then, once we're good with it (which will most likely be the draft I've submitted plus a few tweaks), we'll vote to refer it," said Commissioner Casey Kulla. "Ideally, by the mid-September date."
The freshman commissioner led the effort after being approached during his 2018 campaign and since taking office in January by constituents asking when the commission would be increased to five.
"I did not have an opinion about it, but started asking (constituents) why, what is so urgent?" Kulla said in an email. "And some answered, 'The commissioners' decisions are too big to be made by just three, or rather, two commissioners."
Kulla began about 16 months ago meeting with a group of county residents determined to enlarge the commission.
"Each person has come to this from a different place," Kulla said. "Some wish there (were) more decision-makers for land use matters, others think that a competent and credible board needs open lines of communication, while another wants a bigger cross-section of the county demography and geography represented."
The mechanism by which the commission would be enlarged is a fairly simple one: it requires a vote of the electorate and can be referred to the ballot by the commission itself or by a group gathering sufficient signatures to place it on the ballot.
Commissioner Rick Olson joined Kulla in directing county staff to draft a measure "saying the things we want it to say," he said, adding that if passed by the commission it will then be sent to the county clerk. If the ordinance is passed by the commission the question would appear on the May 2020 ballot.
"I prefer having the Board of Commissioners refer as it constitutes a major structural change," Kulla said. "However, if in the end I do not have a second vote on referral (from the commission), all of our group is ready to go file it and gather signatures."
Ultimately, enlarging the commission means more input on issues, Kulla said.
"To me the advantage is primarily in having more voices, unique experiences and different perspectives represented on the board," he said. "I think that a good decision comes from wrestling with the issues, gathering information and being willing to take a risk for something that is worth it."
The disadvantages of having a three-member commission occur all too frequently, he added.
"Currently, I cannot ask another commissioner what they think about a certain project or initiative beforehand. (State law does not allow a quorum of officials to discuss issues out of the public view). So, I might just let the moment go by.
"We have some big issues in the county and its budget that need to be addressed and we have outstanding issues that keep being put off, but we have not had the conversation. I believe that is in part because we don't get the chance to talk them through completely."
Kulla and the pro-enlargement group researched five-member commissions over the past several months. What they found emboldened them.
"I asked commissioners in Clackamas County what they thought about having five commissioners, compared to their colleagues in three-commissioner counties. Two commissioners looked at each other and said, 'I don't how we would do it. My commissioners are my best counselors and we are all experts in different areas and we share that knowledge.'
"I look forward to having a relationship with my fellow commissioners," Kulla said.
Clackamas County's commission also proved to be the model for the five-member initiative.
"We ran around (Yamhill) County asking people what they wanted and we looked closely at the Clackamas County initiative that passed in 2009," he said. "So, our draft ordinance says that the compensation committee will make a recommendation to the budget committee before the filing deadline for the 2022 elections."
Yamhill County commissioners earn in the neighborhood of $106,000 in salary and benefits, Kulla estimated. If the commission was increased to five members, the county would have to determine what form the pay structure would take.
"The county's budget can easily handle (two additional) commissioners paid at the same rate," he said. "Another option would be to increase the base salary and cut all benefits by making commissioners contracted, which would reduce the overall cost.
"I think that it is important to have a compensation that can work for qualified people. However, it is ultimately the decision of the county compensation committee."
Finally, the draft ordinance would require the two additional commissioners to be elected in 2022, one for a two-year term and one for a four-year term, "so that we get a full five-member board as soon as possible while getting back to a staggered election cycle as soon as possible," Kulla said.
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