Where does county go from here?

Lianne Thompson

As you read this, we’ve already learned the results of the November general election. Most of us are glad it’s over, whether we “won” or “lost.” Politics is a game of winners and losers, and it’s like contact sports, a kind of mixed martial arts.

What comes after the political battles is the governing — finding the courage and generosity to consider the common good, the common ground, and an equitable distribution of costs and benefits through public policies and programs.

Like the rest of our culture, politics has become a game of constant, never-ending warfare. We never get to the governing part, the part where we put down our weapons and put our heads together in a positive way. We need to stop butting heads and start using more of our heads for their brains, to generate and execute solutions.

It’s not that we’re doing everything wrong. We are definitely doing things right. But there’s a body of challenges that we’re not addressing effectively as a team. We can do better.

But we need a process. And we need to be willing to be capable, which means we’re willing to try, make mistakes, learn from them, and then try again.

I think we can learn from the last 20 years’ experience with volunteer commissioners, as provided under the home rule charter in effect in Clatsop County.

Taxpayers work hard to earn the money that government spends to provide services for the public. Without a dedicated elected governing body that can spend the time and effort to understand what it takes to earn the money and how to wisely spend that money, there is no effective public accountability.

In my experience, volunteer commissioners are usually part-time, especially if they have to earn a living doing some other job. They may be too eager to accept “advice” from a lobbyist or a bureaucrat, neither of whom is elected by the public or accountable to the public.

However well-meaning or self-serving the advice, how is a part-time elected official to weigh and sift the truth to arrive at the best path to the common good? How are transparency and accountability served, except with dedicated and capable elected public officials?

Dedicated and capable elected public officials need to do planning and evaluation, I think, and they need to do it strategically. Other Clatsop County boards of commissioners have done real and substantive strategic planning.

In 2011, in an open competitive bidding process, my firm won a contract to provide strategic planning facilitation to the sitting board of commissioners in Clatsop County. As a result of that strategic planning, the board committed to follow a new form of clear and empowering accountability and developed board rules to implement the new way of operating.

That included a series of listening sessions in 2014. Vision 2030 community input sessions were held in seven locations all over Clatsop County, and people showed up to voice their vision.

What was supposed to happen after that was a statement of the board’s mission and measures of effectiveness in achieving progress toward achieving that mission. It didn’t happen. It needs to happen, now more than ever.

If a volunteer board cannot achieve the statement of mission that expresses the will of the people in this county and the dimensions along which it should evaluate its employee, the county manager, we’re in trouble.

I do see trouble. I see the churn of both elected and appointed leaders, the Clatsop County commissioners and the county manager. Our rate of turnover is alarming. It’s a waste of time, talent, and treasure. It’s costly in money spent and opportunities lost.

We can and must do better. I hope the new board that takes office in January 2019 will do better.

Where do we go from here? Back to listening to the people, and then moving forward to refine and define the county’s mission, what kind of difference we want to make and how we intend to make that difference, for ourselves and for the county manager — whom we both hire and hold accountable.

And it is, I think, the board’s job to hold the county manager accountable for results achieved in realizing the county’s mission. The voters, the people, elect their representatives on the governing body and hold those representatives accountable.

If staff isn’t held accountable to the members of the governing body, there is no other way to do it. Voters certainly have no other direct impact than their votes.

But the board of county commissioners can, should, and must be accountable to the people. The best way I see to do that is to listen again to the people. What we thought years ago needs refreshing. The housing and opioid crises are much worse now, for example.

After listening to the people, the board should define and refine community input into a compelling mission. Then comes another interesting part — translating the mission into focus areas, such as housing, economic development, community physical and mental health, public safety, and the arts.

From those focus areas come logical action steps, with analysis and planning to evaluate needs, methods, and results or outcomes.

The details remain to be worked out. But the operative word here is “worked.” The time has passed for a board that does not perform the essential work of thoughtfully proceeding to answer the question, “Where do we go from here?”

Lianne Thompson represents District 5 — South County — on the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners.


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