Expand board of commissioners


Last updated 2/6/2024 at 10:11am

Years ago, while working as a reporter in Oregon, I was tasked with covering the county commissioners. At the time, I had very little understanding of who the county commissioners were or what their jobs entailed. Probably like a lot of voters, I trusted that these public servants were doing their best on the public’s behalf. As a reporter, I learned that is not always the case. Some used the position to enrich themselves or their friends. One commissioner I reported on was investigated by the state ethics board for such violations.

Following the money trail is the best way to know if county commissioners are doing their job. Commissioners have oversight to a sizable budget, even in rural areas. Here in Deschutes County the adopted budget for the 2024 year is over $700 million. That’s a lot of money to keep tabs on and to be held accountable for, should some county employee decide to go rogue, which does happen from time to time.

Providing better oversight of the county’s budget is just one of the reasons why Commissioner Phil Chang believes the voters of Deschutes County would be better served with a five-member board.

“While we work with a budget committee, ultimately it is the three of us who make the final decisions. We would have better oversight control of the budget with a five-member board,” he said.

Commissioners make all sorts of decisions that affect our daily lives: everything from our county roads to our county fair, to our county jails, to our county courts. One recent example of their power has to do with the control they have over whether we have sufficient water to survive.

Enough water to survive has been a point of contention since a mere two-to-one vote approved plans for another Destination Resort in a semi-arid region where declines in ground water have been well-documented. Citing climate change, water deficits, and the impacts on the Tribes cultural resources, The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs opposed the resort. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife also voiced their opposition to the resort, as did hundreds of Deschutes County citizens. All to no avail. Commissioners Patti Adair and Tony DeBone sided with the developer of the controversial resort, stating that citizens’ concerns — the people commissioners are elected to represent — “have no bearing” on how the resort “mitigates its own water use to ensure no net loss or degradation of habitat.”

You don’t realize the power the county commissioners hold over your daily life until you turn on your spigots and no water flows out.

The commissioners could have expanded the board by their own vote, but failed to do so. DeBone argued that if voters want better representation among their county commissioners, let them collect the signatures to get it on the ballot and vote for it themselves.

That effort is currently underway, and the League of Women Voters is in full support of that expansion. The bottom line for the League of Women Voters goes back to the core of who we are and what we always focus on – voter representation.

When Deschutes County was first formed in 1916, the county’s population was 5,000. Today’s population is 210,000. All indications are that Deschutes County is going to continue to grow and our water systems are going to suffer the impact of that.

Our current board of three commissioners is simply incapable of mitigating the demands of our growing population. We at the League believe voters would be much better served by a five-member county commissioner board, with designated population zones assigned to three commissioners and two at-large commissioners. If you, too, would like to see that happen, head over to representdeschutes.com and sign the petition to put it on the ballot for November.

When elected officials ignore, or worse, seek to silence the voices of voters, and make decisions that are detrimental to those citizens, voters need to raise their voices even louder at the ballot box.

Karen Spears Zacharias is the president of League of Women Voters Deschutes County.


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