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Proposed Josephine County Charter Already Conflicts with Past Court Rulings

In May Josephine County voters will decide whether to keep the existing county charter or replace it with a new county charter by approving Measure 17-116.

Among other changes, the proposed charter would increase the number of commissioners from three to five and reduce commissioner compensation to $24,000 per year.

“Section 7. COMPENSATION AND COMMISSION EXPENSES. County Commissioners shall serve without salary and without benefits. As recognition for the service rendered by the County Commissioners, each shall serve with a stipend equal to 15 percent of the Circuit Court Judge salary.”

Is Section 7 legal?

The existing county charter capped commissioner salary and benefits to $30,000 per year.

This compensation limit was never followed by the county budget committee nor the county finance director due to conflicts with Oregon law.

Josephine County was taken to court because the county charter was not being followed. The county won in court, and the county charter compensation sections continue to be ignored.

On Aug. 23, 2005, then County Legal Counsel Steve Rich wrote a memo to the county commissioners to “annotate any provisions of the county charter that have been clarified, modified, or declared void by court decisions.” Among various sections covered included compensation for county commissioners.

Section 25(2) Compensation [adopted by initiative, May 1990]

“In Hudson v. Feder, Josephine County Circuit Court case # 90-CV-139 (Judge Joan Seitz presiding), that compensation was an administrative matter and not a legislative matter; and as an administrative matter it was not an appropriate subject for an amendment by initiative. This reasoning was based on La Grande v. PERB, 281 Or 137 (1978) and reaffirmed in Lane County Transit v. Lane County, 327 Or 161 (1998).

“In Pumilia v. Hudson, Josephine County Circuit Court case # 94-CV-0111, the court (Judge Ross Davis presiding) determined, among other things, that Oregon state statutes preempted Section 25 (or at least portions thereof) of the charter and that there was a clear duty on the part of the county finance director to pay Commissioners as provided by the state statutes and Section 25(1). Again, see Lane County Transit v. Lane County, 327 Or 116 (1998)

Section 29.2 Due Process and Compensation [adopted by initiative, November 1994]

“In State of Oregon v. Josephine County, Josephine County Circuit Court case # 98-CV-0298 (Judge Coon presiding), determined that this charter section violated state and federal constitutions, was superseded by state statute and was void.”

This means that future Josephine County Budget Committees can disregard the new charter language to limit county commissioner compensation to approximately $24,000 because of state law and court precedents.

The charter revision group’s website acknowledges the preeminence of state and federal laws overriding the charter: “In short, anything in any charter that can conflict with state or federal law or constitutions can be taken to court and struck down.”

Going to court to “fix” defects in the new charter will cost time and money. The outcome of a lawsuit would likely have no different outcome than the 1990 and 1998 court cases: Setting compensation levels is an administrative matter and would be decided by the budget committee and the county commissioners when approving the county budget.

According to the supporters’ website, the current total compensation of three commissioners is $403,804, which is an average of $134,601. This includes salary, payroll taxes and payroll benefits. The supporters show the five county commissioners earning $24,000, or $120,000 total. This leaves $283,804 for a county manager’s salary and benefits.

The proposed charter does not require the commissioners be part-time positions. By paying them a low “stipend” it could attract candidates who don’t need a salary. Yet if the duties of the commissioners remain full-time, then the compensation would need to reflect full-time effort. This would increase commissioner compensation by $269,202 based on current average compensation. Employing a county administrator is optional under the existing county charter. Under the revised county charter, the commissioners are obligated to hire a county manager, which would increase compensation costs even more.

‘Unexpected’ cost increases

Beyond higher compensation, there are other predictable cost increases resulting from approval of the proposed county charter.

The Josephine County Courthouse has three offices for county commissioners, an area for administrative support and a conference room used for weekly commissioner meetings.

The office space would need to be remodeled to add two additional commissioner offices and an office for the new county manager. Commissioners require an office to meet with constituents, prepare for meetings, handle phone calls, keep up with email and other administrative duties.

Currently, the commissioner conference room has a table with six seats. The budget committee consists of the three commissioners and three citizens. Going to five commissioners means adding two commissioners and two citizens to the budget committee. The county manager would attend budget meetings. The current conference room is not large enough for a table for 12 people.

Two administrators support three county commissioners. One or two more administrators would be necessary to support the five commissioners and the county manager. This too will increase salary and administration costs.

This is a developing story and more will be reported in the April Oregon Eagle.

Richard Emmons is the Publisher and Editor of the Oregon Eagle.