Last night I spent a surprisingly enjoyable two hours at a debate about the pros and cons of a proposed Marion County (Oregon) home rule charter, which would enlarge the Board of Commissioners from three to five and make other changes to county government.
But I'm sure the large audience at the debate included many people on both sides of the issue. The questions submitted in writing to the three panelists certainly reflected that.
It was gratifying to see how smoothly the League of Women Voters handled the evening, after all the rancorous partisanship that we've been "treated" to (I can do without this treat) at the state and national levels of government.
The debaters were Salem City Councilor Bob Cannon (pro) and Marion County Commissioner Sam Brentano (con).
I was much impressed with Cannon, and not just because I agree with his point of view.
After the debate I went up to him, shook his hand, and said "I like your style. You're the sort of Republican this independent turned Democrat could vote for. You're in the mold of Tom McCall and other moderate Oregon Republicans -- who are a dying breed nowadays."
Here's how Bob Cannon describes his politics:
My politics are quite simple. I have three principles and they go like this: 1) I am a firm believer in getting the biggest bang out of our tax dollar that we can. Government will never have enough money to do all the things that many people might like. So our government is really not any different from your family or mine. We have to make choices and live within our means. 2) I like to breathe clean air and drink clean water. (3) I believe in education and helping people.
Can't argue with that.
Nor with Cannon's reasons for liking the changes to Marion County government, which he outlined with lawyerly precision in a handout that I made into a PDF file.
Download Cannon remarks on Marion County charter change
He said that the current setup in the county dated from Oregon's statehood in 1859. Times have changed (obviously), and so should the Board of Commissioners and other aspects of county governance.
Cannon serves on the nine member Salem City Council. He believes strongly in open and frequent communication between public officials. And also representation by district, which brings government closer to the people.
Yet currently the three members of the Board of Commissioners can't talk with each other about an issue before them, because Oregon's open meeting law forbids a quorum (two people, in this case) of a public body meeting without advance notice. Other large counties like Clackamas, Multnomah, and Lane have gone to five-member commissions, in part for this reason.
The charter change also would elect commissioners by district, rather than county wide. This would make it easier for people to run for commissioner, since they'd only need to campaign in an area with 60,000 population rather than 300,000.
And if the Home Rule Charter passes, the commissioners would be non-partisan. Cannon said repeatedly, "I've never seen an issue at the local level that was Republican or Democratic. It just doesn't happen."
So why should candidates for the Board of Commissioners have to run as a party member? This introduces a partisanship into county government that is decidedly unhelpful in these overly politically polarized times.
I wanted to ask a question of the debaters, and labored mightily at printing it as legibly as possible -- which wasn't easy for me, given my terrible handwriting.
I wrote it on a piece of paper that my wife gave me, so I could recognize my question when the League of Women Voters moderator picked it up from a pile and read it while Cannon and Brentano were responding to someone else's query.
Then she put it down. It never got asked. Either my penmanship was so bad she couldn't make it out, or she felt it was duplicative of other questions that had been asked.
Here's what I wanted to know:
The County Commissioners are fairly unique among public officials because they perform legislative, executive, and judicial functions, all three branches of government. They pass ordinances; they manage the county staff who enforce the ordinances; and when there is a dispute over how an ordinance has been enforced, they serve in a quasi-judicial capacity at a hearing.
So doesn't it make sense that these duties would be performed better with five people rather than three? Currently only two commissioners can run the county, outvoting the third.
They don't need to discuss, debate, or delve into issues. They only need one ally on the Board of Commissioners to be judge, jury, and executioner (well, more accurately legislator, manager, and court). Bob Cannon says:
Yes, five minds are better than three. We are talking about policy makers making policy decisions. In my opinion five people will arrive at a better result and ultimately make better policy and legislative decisions than three.