COLUMBIA COUNTY —Are barking dog problems or the condition of county roads issues where a county commissioner’s political affiliation really has an impact?
Columbia County Commissioner Earl Fisher doesn’t think so, and on Jan. 13, initiated the process to change the partisan three-member Board of County Commissioners to a non-partisan office where the individual’s political party status is not a consideration in their participation in an election.
Fisher said he began considering this idea when he was running for election in 2008. In town hall forums and conversations with citizens during the race, Fisher said that he found people were concerned with practical issues, instead of ideological issues.
“People were concerned about the execution of county government,” Fisher said. “They were sick and tired — at all levels —of the partisan bickering that goes on.”
Citizens wanted to know how candidates were going to get the roads fixed, what to do about the barking dog next door; “they didn’t see any difference between Republican, Democrat or whatever [party] affiliation the candidates were.”
Columbia County would not be alone in the switch to a non-partisan board.
Two years ago, voters in Tillamook approved the non-partisan option.
“We weren’t sure how it would go, but it passed overwhelmingly,” Tillamook County Commissioner Mark Labhart said.
Labhart is in his second term as a county commissioner, and has run both as a partisan candidate and as a non-partisan candidate.
“Word on the street was that people were tired of the partisan races,” he said. “We deal with what I call ‘mom and pop’ issues: land use, roads. People just don’t see our positions as partisan ones.”
At the Association of Oregon Counties, Communications Manager Eric Schmidt said that the switch from partisan to non-partisan is a growing trend within the state. “More and more counties are going to non-partisan races,” he said.
What would it mean?
To put it in the simplest terms, Schmidt said that instead of only Democrats and Republicans running in the general election, anyone would be able to run for the office of County Commissioner, no matter their political affiliation. Every registered voter would be able to vote for a candidate, not just those registered in the two larger parties.
Fisher is also of the opinion that a non-partisan board would allow more people to participate; he also supposes that it could reduce the candidate’s costs for elections.
“[There is ] a certain amount of a poisonous atmosphere in partisan races, and this removes some of that. It opens up the possibility of more people being able to stand for an election, which would have a positive impact,” Fisher said.
As far as cost reductions, in the current system, candidates have to run two races, in the primary election, against members of their own political party affiliation, and later, the winner of the primary must run again against a member of another political party. “With non-partisan, it doesn’t have the same kind of fervor,” Fisher said. If one candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, or more, there may be a need for only one election.
Scappoose resident Bob Ekstrom is a Constitution Party member, who thinks the switch could be a good thing.
“I think it could be good, I think it could improve the county government. Too often, voters do have a knee-jerk reaction [and vote within their party]” he said. “For any candidate, the hardest thing you’ll have to do is persuade voters who agree with you (but are of a different political affiliation) to vote outside their party affiliation.”
Current commissioner Rita Bernhard said she’s curious about how this will turn out. “”I can see good and bad to this option,” she said.
While it could open the door for more diversity in candidates who may not have been able to run in a partisan elecion, Bernhard said that party affiliation can sometimes make the process easier for voters. “Party affiliation [can make it easier for voters] to understand a candidate’s platform and views,” she said.
“We really don’t make partisan decisions, People expect us to or think we do, but we don’t,” Bernhard said. “I’m anxious to find out what the general public thinks,”
When could this take effect?
County Counsel Sarah Hanson is currently drafting the ordinance that will start the process to change the partisan status of the office. She said that the change must be referred to voters for approval. There is no timeline for the process at this time.
This change would not impact the election for Commissioner Rita Bernhard’s position on the board. Fisher said that it would likely take effect in 2012.
The county will hold public hearings on this issue once the ordinance has been drafted and approved by the Board of County Commissioners.
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