Is five preferable to three? Absolutely. Personally, I think seven is even better. But last night I learned that no Oregon county has more than five county commissioners.
It's hard to imagine that a meeting with the geeky title of "Marion County Governance in the 21st Century" would be as interesting as it was. Before I headed off to the Salem Public Library to attend this Friends of Marion County forum, I considered taking along a super-sized latte to be sure I stayed awake.
But it was surprisingly engaging. The reason for the get-together was to explore the pros and cons of expanding the Marion County board of commissioners from three to five members.
Voters in Clackamas County recently approved such a move. Ron Johnson, former chair of the county Planning Commission, said that unchecked dysfunctional growth convinced both political leaders and citizens that more heads around the board of commissioners table would make for better decision-making.
Peter Sorenson, a Lane County commissioner, gave the same message. Five commissioners leads to fewer problems and better results.
The math is simple: two people making a decision versus three. With five commissioners it takes more talking to get something done. And that's good.
Under Oregon's public meetings law, a majority of a decision-making body can't discuss an issue up for a vote in private. So two people on a three member board can't have a working coffee or lunch together. With a five member board, they can.
I asked Sorenson why the usual governmental system of checks and balances doesn't apply at the county level. Usually there are separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches – like the President of the United States, Congress, and the Supreme Court.
But in Oregon a board of commissioners can administer county departments (including hiring and firing managers), pass ordinances, and then make quasi-judicial decisions on those ordinances.
I said that this seemed like too much concentration of power. Sorenson replied that in land use planning matters there'd been a state legislative effort to have cases appealed to a state hearings officer, which makes a lot of sense. It didn't go anywhere.
Too bad. However, enlarging the number of people making county decisions, quasi-judicial or otherwise, would help to diffuse the power of a single commissioner – which obviously is high in a three-person board where two rule.
Those attending the meeting filled out a questionnaire asking which of various options they preferred. Three or five members? Elected county wide or by districts? With an elected chair or a rotating chair?
It'd take an initiative to change the board structure. That could be referred to voters by the current board of commissioners (the easy way), or signatures could be gathered (the harder way).
Even harder would be changing Marion County from a General Law to a Home Rule governance. This is an ever geekier subject that I won't attempt to describe.
Janet Carlson, chair of the county board of commissioners, came to the forum and made some remarks as an audience member. Kudos to Commissioner Carlson. The current board should seriously consider expanding from three to five members.
Hopefully there will be enough interest in this issue to keep the discussion going. Admittedly, it isn't the most provocative political topic at the moment, with the presidential race so hot and furious. Still, it holds the promise of improving how Marion County is governed – an undeniably good thing.