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Manager shares how the pandemic has shifted priorities within county government

As part of a new series called "Checking In," Pamplin Media Group spoke with Clackamas County Administrator Gary Schmidt about how the county's role has changed and the new challenges in providing services presented by the pandemic.


How has COVID-19 changed your job, or challenged you to think differently about the problems facing the county and solutions to solve them?

I think the biggest change is that it really has helped focus and clarify the work we do at Clackamas County. And in this case, it really is helped narrow it down to what are the most important priorities to protect the public that protect the health and safety of the public during a public health crisis. So people have food, that they have shelter, that they're able to get to their jobs and work the economy — all of those components that we work on all the time with the county, but it really helps focus that during a pandemic. We really have to take care of the public and help them with the most essential needs for their lives.

What do you think Clackamas County residents don't quite understand about how their county government operates? If you could dispel one misnomer what would that be?

I would say, right now, the biggest is that Clackamas County is the public health authority for the county, and that's the role that only counties play. Most counties are the public health authority for their (jurisdiction). There are a few counties that have chosen not to take on that responsibility in which case it reverts back to the state, but cities are not public health authorities, neither are other jurisdictions. That's why the governor has asked counties to submit their reopening plans because they are the public health authorities. You've seen and read it, there are a lot of people upset, in Oregon and around the nation, asking why we're shut down.

Does it make it easier having someone like County Public Health Officer Dr. Sarah Present to help guide decisions and policy during these times?

Yes, relying on her makes it easier, and it's essential to rely on our public health experts to give us the science and basis to make decisions. She's very effective working with elected officials. She has all the skills, traits and professional background that helps her be credible.

What big projects should residents be tuned into right now? Obviously COVID-19 has really screwed a lot of things up, but the county is still pressing forward on a lot of fronts.

Our Board of County Commissioners has a strategic plan which we call 'Performance Clackamas' and they've narrowed it down to 12 priorities for the coming two years. They're topics like transportation infrastructure, like adding a third travel lane to I-205; our Sunrise (roadway) system project (between Happy Valley and Damascus); high-speed internet access in rural parts of our community; helping to reduce homlessness; better housing for all in the county; our climate action team… those priorities are continuing. They're not going away, especially housing right now and homelessness are key even more so because of COVID, so our efforts are continuing and moving forward.

What are you most proud of in terms of the way the Clackamas County and county staff have responded to this crisis?

I'm most proud of how the county government is continuing to operate. We are not stopped, and we are still serving the public. We're just doing that remotely. A really great accomplishment is within the Department of Transportation and Development our permitting work is now entirely online. And we did that in about a two-week timeframe. Other jurisdictions have taken a year or longer to do that at incredible cost, and we were able to do it in two weeks at minimal cost to no cost to help ensure that we can still serve the public with information. We are still providing services, and we're doing it remotely, so I'm very proud of how employees quickly pivoted to make that happen, and did it seamlessly.

What are you looking forward to doing the most once we're at the other end of this pandemic?

You know, it's an important part of our community to be able to be physically together. Right now, we're not able to do that, so things like going to a restaurant, going to movies. I miss going to the movies. I hope they'll be open someday. Just being together and going to a concert or play. I miss physically being able to be around other people, and I look forward to that returning some day.

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