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Taking an independent stand

Hoping to lure Republicans and Democrats alike, longtime higher education manager Kevin Talbert will run as an Independent for an open seat on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, emphasizing jobs and the economy — and eschewing his opponent’s main goal of cutting county spending.

 Talbert, a registered Democrat, was nominated in June by the Independent Party of Oregon. No Democrat ran in the May primary, so Republican Colleen Roberts, thanks to write-ins, got the nominations of both main parties.

Unlike Roberts, who has been a persistent critic of county government, Talbert said he thinks county government can be a force to help build a stronger community.

 “After the primary, people saw the odds were stacked,” Talbert said. "People wanted and deserve a choice, someone optimistic, who can build things up instead of being critical about everything.”

 Talbert, 67, retired after 26 years as Southern Oregon University’s director of continuing education, including six years as the school’s chief information officer.

 He said he will court “business or moderate Republicans,” whom he contrasted with “constitutional conservatives” such as his opponent. He faulted the Roberts platform, saying it calls for constitutional government, transparency and spending cuts but offers few goals or programs.

 “Commissioners should be non-partisan posts,” he said. "I say why should it matter what party you are when it comes to fixing roads and streets. Potholes are not partisan ... and when people are at the animal shelter with their dogs and cats, they don’t want to be treated based on party.”

 Talbert, an elected member of the Rogue Community College board — and veteran of many other boards — said he’s familiar with such organizations and their players and, as commissioner, would encourage their collaboration to boost the county’s economy.

 Talbert said the commissioners especially need to support education and bring the county's goals in line with economy-driven organizations, such as Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development, the Southern Oregon Business Association, local chambers of commerce and regional colleges. Together, he notes, they can better host prospective businesses who might locate here, help mitigate land use barriers and adapt zoning to changing opportunities.

 As a board member of the Rogue Initiative for a Vital Economy (THRIVE), Talbert says he understands and wants to include local agriculture, retail and industry in healthy growth — and emphasize value-added efforts, so the economy is selling laminated beams, not just logs.

Another of his goals, said Talbert, is to bring county government “into balance” on public health and safety, with a focus not only on enforcement, but also rehabilitation, employment and building a good life.

 “When I go out and meet people, they’re concerned about crime, property theft, drugs, gangs,” says Talbert. “But do jails and enforcement really make people safer?”

 Referring to the courts, juvenile system and district attorney, Talbert said, “We don’t want their (offenders’) only encounter with the county to be arrest and jail. Let’s balance enforcement with prevention and diversion.”

 Talbert disputed Roberts’ call to roll back commissioner pay to pre-2008 levels, saying salaries are in line with other growing Oregon counties.

 “There’s a lot of frustration with government but it’s mostly the federal government,” said Talbert. “Jackson County has had good commissioners. Of all the O&C counties, Jackson is in the best position to move forward in the 21st century economy.

Following cuts in the federal O&C timber payments, Talbert noted, the county is spending $25-30 million less than a decade ago and has several hundred fewer employees. Many operations, such as parks, Expo and the airport, have been put on a self-sustaining basis. 

Talbert said there is already evidence of what would be in store if Jackson County were to budget-cut its way to the level of surrounding O&C counties.

“Well, if you like what’s going on there, I suggest you vote for my opponent, because those counties have the kind of low-wage government she advocates. Commissioners should be paid at a competitive level that’s similar to other counties. They have a $300 million budget and it’s not smart to low-ball people who have oversight on that budget.”

 Responding to Roberts’ vow to operate according to the Constitution,  Talbert said, “the commission and all governments have to be within the Constitution. I don’t understand this rationale of constitutional conservatives.”

As for transparency, Talbert said the commission and all governmental bodies must adhere to state open meetings laws and “no one wants behind-the-scenes deals.”

Talbert said his electoral strategy will be to get 42,000 votes by appealing to a broad spectrum of voters, because just netting Democrats will not be enough. He said he believes he can earn the support of moderate Republicans who may not be comfortable with Robert's brand of conservatism.

“We need to appeal to the independents and non-affiliated voters,” he said. “Many Republicans in the county share my views, based on the importance of supporting local business... . I have a strong history as a consensus builder, working with people whose views might be different than my own.”

 Although an Ashlander, Talbert touts his rural credentials, noting he grew up milking cows and baling hay in Minnesota, lives in the country on North Valley View Road and was a leader in the successful May ballot measure to get a tax base for the Extension Service. He and his wife are dog lovers, having fostered 43 dogs and kept two of them, he adds.

 After three years in the Peace Corp in Nigeria and service in the U.S. Army in Ethiopia, Talbert has become an admirer of African art. He has a doctorate in higher education administration from University of Northern Colorado, a master’s in the same from the University of Wisconsin and a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Minnesota.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.