County commissioner elections often get about as much attention from voters as an “exciting” (using that word in its most ironic sense) race for county assessor. Yawn...
But in Marion County, as elsewhere in Oregon, November’s election is going to determine who will play a big part in running county government for the next four years. Marion County’s budget is $350 million, affecting 315,000 county residents. That’s a big deal.
Currently Marion County’s three commissioners are all Republicans. Two are running for re-election this year, Patti Milne and Janet Carlson. Carlson is unopposed, while Milne has a strong Democratic challenger: Jason Freilinger.
The two candidates offer voters a clear choice. They have different backgrounds, and different governing approaches.
Patti Milne has been an elected official for seventeen years. She was a State Representative from 1993-1998 and is finishing her third term as county commissioner (1999-2010).
Jason Freilinger, by contrast, has worked in the private sector for the past fifteen years. He’s supervised up to 900 employees for cable companies and currently is Customer Loyalty manager for T-Mobile.
Land use probably is the area in which their differing political philosophies are most apparent. Milne is a strong proponent of individual property rights and largely unfettered development, even on high value resource lands.
Milne voted to allow a 43 lot, 217 acre Measure 37 subdivision on groundwater limited farmland in the south Salem hills to move forward, even though hydrogeologic experts hired by Marion County concluded there wasn’t evidence of enough water for the development. Recently a circuit court judge reversed this 2-1 Board of Commissioners’ decision, ruling that Milne and another commissioner had failed to properly consider both the facts and the law in this case.
Milne also voted to approve a 400 acre expansion of the Woodburn urban growth boundary that would turn farmland into industrial acreage, even though Marion County has over 2000 acres of undeveloped industrial property. This decision also didn’t pass muster legally. The Land Use Board of Appeals ruled that the City of Woodburn hasn’t demonstrated the need for this expansion.
Jason Freilinger takes a more balanced approach to land use. He’s in favor of carefully considering all the facts in a case before reaching a decision, since it is costly to all concerned (would-be developer, neighbors, taxpayers) when a court finds that the Board of Commissioners erred in approving or denying a development.
Farming is big business in Marion County. Freilinger wants to protect high value farmland from being unnecessarily paved over. He seeks to make sure that urban growth boundary expansions are truly needed, rather than the result of an unrealistic “if we rezone it, they will come” economic development notion. Freilinger wants to see the county attract more well-paying technology, manufacturing, and green industry jobs rather than minimum wage warehouse jobs.
Courthouse Square is another hot issue of considerable interest to Marion County voters. This block-sized development in downtown Salem houses most county offices and the Salem Transit Mall. At least, it used to. Courthouse Square, which cost taxpayers $34 million, has serious construction problems and has been declared unusable by building inspectors.
Office space for county employees, including the Board of Commissioners, is being rented at a significant cost. Taxpayers are still on the hook for $20 million needed to finish paying off Courthouse Square, but Milne and the other commissioners have settled with the architects/contractors for only $1.8 million. This has led to many questions being raised about how well the project was managed before and after construction.
Having taken office in 1999, Patti Milne was a county commissioner in 2000 when Courthouse Square opened. Problems with the building became apparent soon after. Milne supports a study that is underway of what went wrong with the project, and how the construction problems could have been prevented. However, she has declined to take responsibility for her actions as a county commissioner in overseeing Courthouse Square from prior to its opening to its current certification as dangerously unusable.
Jason Freilinger is making Courthouse Square one of his central campaign issues. He argues that a county structural engineer was barred by the Board of Commissioners from assessing the project, and even though problems with the building were evident as early as 2002, only minimal investigations into construction defects occurred until recently, when concrete slabs were found to be considerably weaker than specifications required.
Other issues point to both differences and similarities between Freilinger and Milne.
Freilinger is in favor of comprehensive family planning to reduce unwanted pregnancies, while Milne’s position is tilted toward abstinence-only programs in Marion County. Both agree, however, that taxes and fees shouldn’t be raised during the current recession.
Freilinger is being endorsed by the Marion County Farm Bureau and Oregon League of Conservation Voters, while Milne’s Voter’s Pamphlet statement for the May primary didn’t list any endorsements.