Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Charter Change: Populism in Josephine County, Oregon

Citizen groups are demanding more representation and less partisanship.

It is a challenge to "good ol' boy" courthouse elites.

The big "populist" news story in America is the GOP's transition from the party of Reagan-style free-trade conservatism into an ethno-nationalist party under Trump. Right populism takes aim at entrenched national and international financial and cultural elites.

Populism takes another direction when it addresses local governments. It is neither left nor right. The "entrenched elites" are people the public perceives having sweet deals or unaccountable power in local offices. Incumbents barricade themselves behind an electoral system that preserves the status quo. Partisan labels in local offices lock out rivals by dis-enfranchising the largest segment of voters, the non-affiliated voter. The neighboring county of Josephine is going through a charter change effort parallel to the one taking place in my home county of Jackson. Their petition slogan was "All voters count." The campaign slogan is "Representation for everyone."

Like in Jackson County, the incumbent commissioners oppose the change.

Lynda Demsher was the founding member of the charter-change group. She lives in Grants Pass with her husband and shelter dog. Before becoming a high school teacher she worked in Shasta and Tehama counties in Northern California as a journalist, then moved to Modoc County where she taught at the high school and rescued llamas and old bird dogs. 

Guest Post by Lynda Demsher


Word is, if Josephine County can make it happen, it can happen anywhere. That’s good news for Jackson County, because a twin effort in Josephine to expand its governing board from three to five commissioners has already qualified for the May 2024 ballot. The proposal is part of a revised county charter that must be approved by voters. It qualified with 3603 valid signatures gathered through the summer. The idea is proving quite popular in notoriously cautious Josephine County, where three town halls in November attracted enthusiastic voters eager to hear more about the logistics of pulling it off.

Ballot Measure 17-166 calls for five commissioners, but unlike Jackson’s proposal, Josephine County commissioners would run from four districts with one at-large. For years, rural voters in Illinois Valley, Williams, Wolf Creek, Merlin and Sunny Valley have complained they aren’t represented on their county board because too many members come from Grants Pass, several straight from the city council. So, the grassroots, non-partisan citizens committee that put Measure 17-116 on the ballot, Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG), listened to those concerns and included what they believe will be better representation for the far reaches of their sprawling county.

The County Clerk’s office in Josephine County said the districts should be in place by the end of December so voters can see where they end up. County elected positions will remain non-partisan under Measure 17-116, so all registered voters can vote in the primaries.

Under the new charter proposal, Josephine County Commissioners would be considered part-time. Provision is made for a stipend, equal to 15 percent of the Circuit Court judge’s salary with no benefits. Currently commissioner salaries in Josephine County range from $95,770 to $102,004, plus benefits, depending on years of service. The money saved by reducing commissioner compensation would go toward hiring a county manager to oversee administrative duties that Josephine County commissioners currently do themselves.

The charter change required an initiative petition.

 Other than expanding the board from three to five part-time commissioners running from districts and hiring a county manager, Measure 17-116 folds in a revision put forward by the commissioner-appointed Josephine County Charter Commission (JCCC). This temporary nine-member panel was given two years to update the current charter, adopted in 1981. The JCCC proposal, which left in place the three commissioner board but had them running in partisan elections, floundered until CRG took it up for further revision. The current Josephine County Charter and its proposed replacement, Measure 17-116, can be seen side by side at

If the Josephine and Jackson county proposals are approved by voters, they would be the seventh and eighth out of Oregon’s 36 counties to have five commissioner boards. Some of those are the larger counties, like Lane and Multnomah which have had five commission boards for years. But smaller counties, like Clatsop, population 41,810 and Hood River, population 24,057, have expanded their boards more recently for better representation, more diversity and to overcome the awkwardness of having a two-commissioner majority. While board expansion, so far, has been in northern Oregon counties, if this idea proves popular in Southern Oregon, it just might catch on.


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1 comment:

Ed Cooper said...

Excellent piece, Peter. Thank you, and your guest presenter for putting this out. It has given me some ideas for increasing participation in our Gold Hill/Rogue River areas.