Three quarters of Oregon counties have nonpartisan commissioner boards
Sunday’s editorial on the Jackson County commissioner race stated that both candidates say they’d approach the job in a nonpartisan manner. Further, it stated that one candidate supports a charter change, in part to create a nonpartisan board. With Jackson County commissioner positions indeed currently being partisan, how many Oregon counties have nonpartisan versus partisan county commissions?
— Bob, via email
Jackson County is one of nine Oregon counties that elect their commissioners in a partisan manner, meaning that Democrats and Republicans pick their candidates in primary elections before moving on to a general election.
The others with partisan boards of commissioners are Benton, Deschutes, Gilliam, Linn, Malheur, Marion, Sherman and Wheeler counties, according to the counties’ websites.
The remaining 27 boards of commissioners in Oregon are elected in nonpartisan elections, but aside from not being limited to primary elections, the approaches are hardly one-size-fits-all.
For instance, Multnomah and Lane counties elect their commissioners to serve geographic districts based on population under a home rule charter.
Josephine County elects members on a nonpartisan basis to serve the county on four-year terms, but commissioners aren’t limited to a specific geographic area beyond residing in the county.
Jackson County’s current charter dates back to 1978, according to Mail Tribune archives, which calls for three full-time commissioners elected countywide on a partisan basis to set policy and oversee departments. Proposals to change Jackson County’s charter have been floated multiple times in the past three decades, archives show.
For instance, in September 1995, back when Joe Charter was a Medford lawyer rather than a judge, Charter sponsored a council-manager form of government that sought to replace three full-time commissioners with seven part-time representatives. Aside from a December follow-up meeting, archives show no further discussion of the proposal.
In 2001, League of Women Voters chapters discussed expanding the board of commissioners to five — a mix of one partisan full-time commissioner and four nonpartisan part-timers — but later dropped the proposal as it grew in complexity.
In 2013, then-commissioner Don Skundrick discussed plans to put a measure to voters making the position nonpartisan, but the proposal apparently fizzled out over concerns it’d overshadow a library district proposal on the ballot.
The most recent effort was in the summer of 2018, when Medford City Councilor and current mayor candidate Kevin Stine launched petitions with the Jackson County Elections Office seeking to make commissioner positions nonpartisan — as well as expanding the number of paid county commissioners from three to five. Stine argued in 2018 that five commissioners gave the board greater flexibility on quorum rules.
In the editorial you mention, Bob, candidate Terrie Martin expressed support for a similar five-person board elected by geographic region. Candidate Dave Dotterrer told the editorial board that he opposes representation by geographic area, but views the commissioner position as nonpartisan.
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