Citizens’ initiative seeks nonpartisan commission
Last updated 6/22/2021 at Noon
Deschutes County is currently the scene of a citizen-driven effort to place an initiative on the ballot that, if approved, would make the office of Deschutes County Commissioner a nonpartisan position.
Of the 36 Oregon counties, only 10 (including Deschutes County) have partisan county commissioners running as either Democrat or Republican. The initiative effort is being led by Susan Cobb, Democrat, of Sisters; Mimi Alkira, former Republican, now independent and vice president of the Deschutes County League of Women Voters; and Drew Kaza, independent and owner of Sisters Movie House.
These three citizens stepped forward after the Deschutes County Board of Commissioners voted down placing a referendum on the May 2021 ballot, with Patti Adair and Tony DeBone voting against. Commissioner Phil Chang fulfilled his campaign promise of bringing the issue of a nonpartisan County Commission before the commissions and was the only one supporting it.
Chang said, “Deschutes County is a leader in so many ways. In this particular area we’re lagging.”
He reported that DeBone may be open to the possibility, but was not in favor of a single-item ballot with a projected cost of $145,000. Chang said that Commissioner Patti Adair was opposed to the nonpartisan position and likes the way the system currently works. When reached by phone last week, Adair said she didn’t have feelings about the issue one way or another.
She later issued this statement: “I feel so fortunate to live in America, where our citizens have the opportunity to make a change in our election process if they consider it worthwhile and necessary.”
Chang asked the other two commissioners for a commitment to put a referendum on the May 2022 ballot, but again DeBone and Adair were not supportive.
“That is why we are now seeing citizens organizing a signature campaign to get an initiative on the ballot. If we can get it on the ballot, I’m sure it will pass,” Chang told The Nugget.
Chang thinks a nonpartisan County Commission would make a difference in the way the board functions.
“More pragmatic, moderate, non-ideological people would run for office, making the Board of Commissioners run differently,” he said. “Currently, we waste a lot of time on ideological, political grandstanding. We need to do our job and make thoughtful decisions. We have a number of challenges and no shortage of work. Because of partisan politics, we are wasting the taxpayers’ money and the community’s time.”
The citizen organizers (chief petitioners) worked with Nancy Blankenship, Deschutes County Clerk, and the Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office to ensure proper language for the initiative.
“Nancy Blankenship was so helpful and always available. She pointed us in the right direction,” Cobb said.
Cobb and Alkira made a training video for people who volunteer to collect signatures for the initiative. A manual for circulators is available from a link on the Oregon Secretary of State’s website.
Volunteers are at the Bend Farmers Market every other Wednesday to collect signatures. People can also register to vote in front of the Deschutes County Library in downtown Bend during the market. Circulators can be found every Sunday at the Sisters Farmers Market; Deschutes County League of Women Voters will be registering voters as well. Cobb will be at Fika Sisters Coffeehouse at 201 East Sun Ranch Dr., 8 to 9 a.m., Monday through Saturday, starting this week, to provide the opportunity to sign the petition.
So far, Cobb reports they have close to 500 signatures from just eight of the circulators in the last two weeks. To qualify to go on the ballot, the initiative requires 6,751 valid signatures. As many as 20 to 40 percent of signatures can be invalidated, so the petitioners have a goal of collecting 9,500 signatures throughout the county.
If the initiative looks to be the only item on the November 2021 ballot, the petitioners will wait for the May 2022 primary election. If the voters approve the initiative, the Board of Commissioners would be required to write an ordinance making the commission positions nonpartisan.