Scandals shake county
Jackson County has been rocked by scandal, with three top officials coming under scrutiny following complaints over their personal conduct and in one case alleged criminal activity.
“There’s been a rash of issues,” Commissioner Rick Dyer said. “There’s been a little upheaval.”
Shane Hagey, Community Justice director, was placed on paid administrative leave after getting arrested Dec. 30 on charges of possession of methamphetamine. Hagey oversees a county department that among other things handles parole and probation for criminals, many of whom have had drug problems.
Assessor Josh Gibson announced his resignation effective Dec. 31 amid questions about urinating on a golf course. Gibson has acknowledged he urinated outside, a relatively common practice among male golfers, but he denied exposing himself in front of a woman who was with his group. He also said he has had recent health issues.
Commissioner Doug Breidenthal is the subject of an Oregon Government Ethics Commission complaint filed by county officials. Breidenthal has denied the allegations, which are related to an obscure campaign account and questions over $70,000 in travel expenses, but the complaint is still under review by the Ethics Commission.
Because there is no common thread to the complaints, Dyer and former commissioners say it’s difficult to come up with a policy or educational tool to prevent similar issues from popping up in the future.
Commissioners and county officials receive extensive training in ethics and are cautioned to avoid situations that would cause public perception problems.
“No matter how many times you tell someone to watch their conduct, some people don’t hear the message,” Dyer said. “These are such isolated and different circumstances. I don’t think there is one magic bullet that could help.”
Going forward, Dyer said, it might be helpful to continually stress to government officials that their jobs are under the spotlight with the community. He said top-ranking county officials need to be on their guard and conduct themselves appropriately while in office.
Dyer said the allegations against Hagey are the most troublesome to him.
“I would have never in a million years have suspected something like that,” he said.
Hagey remains only charged with the crimes and not convicted, but Medford police say they found methamphetamine both when they arrested him and later at his house. An informant told them Hagey had been purchasing meth for at least a year.
In past years, the county has struggled with organizational issues, including shrinking budgets and the temporary closure of its libraries, but only occasional issues arising about a county official's conduct.
Former Commissioner C.W. Smith said, “I’m very disappointed. The county has been working hard for a number of years to build up its reputation.”
He said the county improved its financial position despite declining revenues. “The county is in a very solvent position,” he said.
Smith, a former Jackson County sheriff, said deputies and other officials were warned that three things could get them into trouble: extramarital affairs, gambling and drinking and drugs.
In addition, he said, government officials were expected to keep their personal financial affairs in order.
“Many a good person has lost their career over things like this,” he said.
Smith suggested the media could do a better job of vetting candidates for various positions, though Hagey was hired by the county for his job. Also, he suggested the county could conduct more thorough background checks, though many of the officials under scrutiny were well known in the area.
At the same time, he said the county has been transparent about these issues.
“I’ve been in other places where this stuff is swept under the rug,” he said.
Even with safeguards in place, it’s difficult to figure out how people will act once they get in office, particularly in the case of the arrest of Hagey, Smith said.
“I didn’t see that one coming,” he said. “Sometimes there’s a flaw in a person’s character that causes them to veer off their career path.”
Former Commissioner Don Skundrick said he remembers starting his county job and receiving a lot of information about how public officials should avoid situations that would put the office in a bad light.
“We all make mistakes as human beings, but when you’re in a position of authority, you’ve got to be careful,” he said.
Like others, Skundrick said he was most surprised by the allegations against Hagey, whom he’s known for some time.
“That was a shocker to me,” he said.
Skundrick said he thought Gibson had been doing a good job as assessor. As to the urination on the golf course, Skundrick acknowledged he’s done it himself as have many of his golfing buddies.
Skundrick said he supported an attempt in 2011 to make the assessor, county clerk and surveyor positions appointed rather than elected to better vet the candidates. However, Gibson was first appointed by the county commissioners after the previous assessor, Dan Ross, resigned. Later Gibson ran for office and was elected by the voters.
Despite the scandals, Skundrick said, the county continues to run “exceptionally well."