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Commissioners push Breidenthal to repay county

Jackson County Commissioner Doug Breidenthal said he has been too focused on his daughter's cancer treatment to repay the county $87.23 in travel expenses, and the county then refused to accept a $90 check from him today because it wasn't made out for the exact amount.

Meanwhile, fellow Commissioners Colleen Roberts and Rick Dyer said they favor making commissioners with outstanding debts to the county pay their own way for future travel until payments are made.

Commissioners dueled over the issue of travel expenses during a meeting Thursday morning.

Last summer, Roberts and Dyer approved a new policy that commissioners could not receive mileage reimbursements if they brought family members along on trips paid for by the county. Breidenthal was not in favor of the policy.

"I was in disagreement then and I'm still in disagreement," Breidenthal said, saying that elected officials are often expected to bring spouses to events.

Breidenthal said he had to take his son on a trip earlier this year because a family member broke a hip and his child care arrangements fell through.

During a meeting in early June, his fellow commissioners criticized him for not repaying the county money he received for mileage. Breidenthal said at the time he was researching the issue of whether he could legally and ethically make the payment.

Breidenthal said Thursday he was planning to pay the county back by the end of June for the mileage reimbursement he received, but had to turn his attention to the medical needs of his daughter, who was diagnosed with cancer.

Breidenthal said the county rejected his $90 check Thursday because it wasn't made out for $87.23.

"It was very disturbing to me," he said.

Like many people, he said he no longer carries a checkbook with him — only a debit card and small amounts of cash — so he couldn't write a new check or pay the exact amount in cash.

County Administrator Danny Jordan said the county administration office does not keep a cash box and cannot give change.

Breidenthal said he doesn't know when he may try to pay the county again.

"This is ridiculous. I've been dealing with my daughter's cancer," he said.

Dyer said that while the amount at issue is small, Breidenthal's reluctance to repay the mileage payment has used up the time of county staff and officials.

"It may seem petty," Dyer said. "I don't like this being an issue, but it did drag on and create work and headaches."

Dyer said commissioners have to be held to a high standard, especially because their use of public resources for travel is often much higher than for other county employees.

County Counsel Joel Benton said if an employee refused to repay the county for overpaid travel costs, the employee would face disciplinary action.

"If this happened in private employment, you wouldn't be employed anymore," said Roberts, who — like Dyer — is a business owner.

Roberts noted she repaid the county after she received per diem payments for meals for a training event, but then found out food was provided at the event.

"I wrote a check back to the county," she said.

Roberts and Dyer agreed that interest can be applied on delinquent accounts, and that an unpaid bill eventually could be sent to a collections agency.

The two also voiced support for commissioners paying their own way for future travel if they owe the county money. Roberts said she wants a policy to that effect, while Dyer said he wants commissioners to not have a rigid policy, but to be able to consider each case individually.

Breidenthal bristled at the idea.

"I don't think commissioners should be correcting other commissioners," he said, calling the idea punitive and an example of micromanagement.

Jordan said the whole situation could have been avoided if Breidenthal had promptly repaid the county.

"We shouldn't even be talking about consequences. We shouldn't even be talking about punishment," Jordan said. "We should just follow the policy."

Breidenthal has been criticized for his extensive travel and is under investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice for contributions he received while campaigning to win the presidency of the National Association of Counties Western Interstate Region board of directors.

He lost the May Republican primary for his commissioner seat and will leave office at the end of December. Republican primary winner Robert Strosser will face Democrat Jeff Thomas in the November general election.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Doug Breidenthal