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Guest column: County leaders should observe democracy

Will county government run smoothly after the election?

By Don Haskell

Published on June 22, 2018 8:23AM

Don Haskell

Don Haskell


All the uproar in county government the past few months reminds me of the old saying “the more things change the more they stay the same.”

Clatsop County’s charter hasn’t changed in any significant way the last 30 years. After the fall elections are over, the county commission will have changed with a different group in charge. It’ll be interesting to see whether county government will then run smoothly. Or not.

For commissioners and managers to follow three basic concepts is still as essential as when I was on the commission 25 years ago.

The first concept involves a willingness to understand and be able to personally accept the managerial form of county government voters overwhelmingly adopted years ago. From my observation over the years, the failure to do that lies at the root of almost all county governance problems. It’s important for voters to also appreciate this basic framework of their county government.

The second involves how best to personally deal with the first. And the third concept is to accept the commission as a democratic institution.

These three concepts are very simple and probably obvious to everybody. But the human condition apparently makes them hard to deal with.

As for the first concept, it’s absolutely essential for commissioners to understand and accept the purpose behind the county charter’s managerial system. And that’s to get politics out of county government’s daily operation. The basic idea is that professional managers do a better job of supervising hundreds of public employees and managing things than folks who might be politically popular but aren’t knowledgeable or experienced in best management practices.

Years ago, county residents got tired of all the waste, inefficiencies and political wrangling when the county’s daily operation was managed by three elected commissioners who divided up management chores. The only county residents who benefited were newspaper and radio folks who reported all the inefficiencies and political infighting.

Under the charter, the primary role of commissioners is to represent the community and set governance policies for the manager to follow. If the manager can’t perform in a way that’s satisfactory to at least three commissioners, then another professional manager needs to be hired.

The system won’t run smoothly if individual commissioners interfere in daily operations — even when they think the manager’s decisions are terrible. After all, the three or four other commissioners may think the manager’s doing a fine job.

Getting politics out of the daily operation of county government is simple to say, but not so simple to accomplish. How commissioners and professional managers go about doing that is the key. And that involves the second concept — how best to deal with the manager form of government.

From America’s presidency all the way down to a rural area’s county commission, anybody who runs for any elective office has an ego greater than most other folks. Recognizing this human trait is essential. In fact, as I type that sentence, I think I must have a big ego myself to even make these observations!

In any event, keeping personal egos in check is helpful when five elected people have a wide variety of views based on his or her own life experiences. Wise commissioners know that private suggestions to a commission colleague with a big ego are received much better than public admonitions.

Everybody has their own personalities, and no commissioner is required to “like” another. They just need to respect one another. After all, a commissioner’s colleague has gone to a lot of time and effort to get elected too.

No professional manager likes being sandbagged by the boss. And the county manager has five elected bosses. Commissioners need to complain about stuff to the county manager to fix. For a commissioner to try to instruct a department head severely undercuts the manager’s authority with the very employee the manager’s responsible for. And it’s even more obvious a commissioner should never do that to one of the county’s regular employees.

And the same principle goes for a professional manager. A county manager is accountable to all five bosses, not just to one or more of his five elected bosses. Like most people in top government positions today, county managers need thick skins. And a wise manager doesn’t provoke personality clashes among the five elected bosses.

On a personal basis, a professional county manager tries to see to it that the elected bosses agree with his management style and effectiveness. If he can’t do that for all five, he tries to satisfy at least three, the majority. And professional managers shouldn’t show disdain for commissioners who vote against his recommendations or for any other reason. A wise manager always remembers who his bosses are. And to always remember the manager isn’t The Boss to the elected commissioners who represent the community.

The third concept, to accept that the commission is democratic, is often the toughest for a commissioner to accept. I know that’s so, because I was often in the minority when on the commission years ago. It’s hard to have lost a vote, especially when you’re damned sure you’re right. But that’s life in a democracy. It’s easy to say, but commissioners shouldn’t take so much stuff personally. Just enjoy the governing experience few people are so honored to have.

The third concept of commission democracy brings up another obvious troublemaker -— tyranny by either the majority or minority. All commissioners should be allowed to have their say under rules the commissioners themselves establish to govern their own deliberations. And no commissioner should try to bypass those rules and disrupt the governance system set up by the county charter. That’s such an obvious statement it seems silly to make it. But failure to do that occasionally causes an uproar the newspaper and radio folks quickly report.

Adherence to the three basic concepts behind the charter will ensure a smooth-running county government. Professional managers will then be happy to practice their profession in Clatsop County. And commissioners will feel honored to enjoy the ride they’ve been elected to experience.

Don Haskell is a retired attorney and former Clatsop County commissioner who lives in Astoria.



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