Push on for nonpartisan county commission


Last updated 7/28/2021 at Noon

“Should Deschutes County Commissioners be nonpartisan and be selected in nonpartisan elections?”

That is a question that could go to local voters, if proponents can get sufficient signatures to place the question on a ballot.

Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Chang attended last week’s Sisters Kiwanis meeting to explain his support for Citizens’ Initiative 2021-01-1.

According to the County Clerk’s voter statistics, the number of nonaffiliated voters registered in Deschutes County (47,810) is greater than either registered Republicans (44,386) or registered Democrats (47,033). Currently, Deschutes County is one of only 10 Oregon counties (out of 36) that has a partisan race for County Commissioner, shutting nonaffiliated voters out of primary elections.

The County Commissioners are the only countywide elected officials who serve with political party designations and are the only countywide elected officials chosen in partisan races. This means that political parties nominate candidates, and the County Clerk places them on the general election ballot with other eligible candidates. The party affiliation of candidates is listed next to their names on the ballot.

If this measure goes on the ballot and is approved, Deschutes County Commissioners would serve with no notation in government records of their membership, or nonmembership, in a political party (other than voter registration records). Political parties would no longer nominate candidates for Commissioner. All eligible candidates, regardless of political affiliation, would appear on the ballot with no party affiliations listed. This measure would take effect beginning in 2022.

Chang explained that he is promoting a ballot measure to “reduce toxic partisanship by making Deschutes County Commissioner a nonpartisan position. When I couldn’t persuade the other two commissioners to refer a measure directly to the voters, I began supporting citizen petitioners who are gathering signatures to get the measure on the ballot in 2022.”

Chang believes that local government has no need for partisan politics because almost all decisions at the county level are nonpartisan in nature. In his view, County government should be doing its best to serve the people of the county, not playing partisan politics. Nonpartisan elections are more inclusive — nonaffiliated or third-party voters have the same county ballot as major party voters. Moderates and third-party candidates are not excluded from the primary election process.

The election cycle could be shorter for county seats, cutting the cost of running for office nearly in half. If a candidate received over 50 percent of the vote in the primary, they wouldn’t have to run in the general election. Minor-party candidates would enter each election on an even playing field with major-party candidates.

As part of his presentation, Chang provided background information regarding the basic areas of responsibility that the commissioners oversee.

Acting as the local public-health authority, the commissioners are responsible for preserving and promoting the overall well-being of the county residents. Their response to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the mass-vaccination center at the Deschutes County fairgrounds where 120,000 doses were administered, in partnership with St. Charles Health Services, the Oregon National Guard, and other collaborators. Vaccination clinics are now distributed throughout the county.

Chang has participated in homeless workgroups with the cities of Bend and Redmond to site, fund, and develop managed camps, shelters, transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing. The commissioners have begun obligating funds to these projects so that construction can begin.

Commissioners have approved the purchase and remodeling of two buildings to become a new North County Health Services campus in Redmond. The County’s Public Health and Behavioral Health divisions provide 30 percent of their services in Redmond, but right now only 10 percent of the Health Services Department’s office and clinic space is in Redmond.

The 2021-22 County budget includes investments in prevention of suicide, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and bullying for kids in partnership with the Bend-La?Pine Schools. The program will embed health specialists in the schools.

For six months, the County has successfully operated the 24-7 County Crisis Stabilization Center to deal with mental-health crises with a 24-hour crisis phone line, walk-in crisis services, short-term respite unit, mobile crisis-assessment team, co-responder program where a master’s-level mental-health clinician is embedded with Bend Police Department’s Community Response Team, mental-health court, civil commitment investigations, case management, peer support, and forensic diversion program.

Land-use regulations regarding land lying outside the County’s municipalities Urban Growth Boundaries govern agricultural and forest lands and provide zoning and housing regulations.

Chang’s testimony to the Oregon state legislature resulted in new opportunities for rural residents of the county to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to house family members, home health care providers, farm workers, and others (SB 391). Short-term rentals would not be allowed.

He has also advocated for land donations to partners such as Habitat for Humanity, Housing Works, and Community Land Trust so they can provide affordable housing for the community. County land contributions to housing partners have resulted in hundreds of units of affordable housing already and the need for these projects has never been greater, according to Chang.

The county currently owns no land in Sisters.

The county’s solid waste also comes under the purview of the County Commissioners. At the current pace, the county landfill is predicted to be at capacity by 2028, which would require expenditure of $14 million for a new landfill or finding other locations to which the solid waste could be diverted. A recycling modernization bill would help get recyclable materials where they belong. At this time, many of them end up in the landfill.

Public safety within the county is a big area of responsibility for the commissioners. The 911 dispatch center, the budgets for the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s office, and the facilities and auxiliary staff of the Circuit Court are all funded by the County. Chang’s testimony in Salem helped secure two new badly needed Circuit Court judges to help alleviate the two-to-three year wait for civil cases to be heard.

When asked what the counterarguments are for keeping the County Commissioner election partisan, Chang mentioned that partisan voters (identify with one particular party) tend to be “hard core” voters who vote in every election (primary and general) and vote the party ticket rather than for a particular individual.

Nonaffiliated voters tend to be moderates and centrists.

Chang used the term “low-information voters,” those who are less likely to vote and when they do, they generally vote for a candidate they find personally appealing, rather than having developed clear-cut ideological preferences.

The argument might be made that partisan voters are better informed on the issues, although voting the party ticket doesn’t require an understanding of the issues.

The initiative effort is being led by Susan Cobb, Democrat of Sisters; Mimi Alkira, former Republican and now Independent and vice president of the Deschutes County League of Women Voters; and Drew Kaza, Independent and owner of Sisters Movie House.


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