Thursday, November 23, 2023

Jackson County resists sharing Commissioner salary data

County charges charter-change group $284.64.

Message to citizens: the county has something to hide.

A struggle has been going on behind the scenes in the citizen effort to update the Jackson County, Oregon charter. The petition drive leaders asked the county what commissioners got paid, going back to 1975. The county said you need to pay to get that information.

One of the three issues on petitions circulating in my home county would cut the current $143,000 salary for Commissioners approximately in half. It goes along with a petition to increase the number of commissioners from three to five and one to make the positions non-partisan. Petition-circulators report getting near-universal support from citizens. Jackson County's commissioners are by far the highest paid among Oregon's 36 counties. Charter-change organizer Denise Krause requested the salary data going back to 1975 so the initiative group could respond to inquiries about commissioner "salary creep'"

Jackson County said that providing the information would cost the charter-change group $284.64. A fee would be required to get that information, the county wrote, unless the custodian of the public records -- the county -- "determines that the waiver or reduction of fees is in the public interest because making the record available primarily benefits the general public."

You have not demonstrated an ability to meaningfully disseminate the information. As such, the disclosure will not primarily benefit the public and the request for a fee waiver or reduction is denied. Therefore, I have attached an invoice.

The charter-change group disseminates information widely via social media including their website, Facebook, emails, press releases to traditional media, and one-on-one to a hundred circulators, and then through them to the many hundreds of people they meet as they circulate petitions. That sounds like meaningful dissemination to me.

The cost involved, supposedly to pay a clerk to look up the payroll records -- $284.64 -- is minimal, and it isn't the point. That is proven by the county response. It put two senior county employees on the case, a "Recruitment Specialist" and the county's "Senior Deputy County Administrator and County Counsel." They prepared and sent long, detailed legal arguments telling the charter-change group that the county could and would supply the information, that the information is public and the public has every right to it, and it would indeed supply it to others whom they deem public disseminators, but not to them. Sorry.  The information could have been looked up and provided in a fraction of the time and effort that it took for senior county employees to nitpick and fabricate that excuse for saying "no, not to you." It is patently ridiculous, and the county looks silly and petty for doing it.

In fact it is worse than silly and petty. It looks guilty. Are they embarrassed about the data? Is it indefensible in some way? 

The charter change group is asking a simple and legitimate question. The commissioners set their own salaries when the commissioners review and ratify the budget committee recommendation, so it is perfectly reasonable to ask how much are commissioners voting to pay themselves?

The county is making a bonehead mistake. This was an opportunity to communicate openness and transparency. If the commissioners feel they give good value for their salary, then they could say so, proudly and clearly. They could explain their work and defend what they are paid, and they had darned well better be able to do so. We are, after all, paying them to do a job. Transparent public communication is the reason for having skilled, professional communicators as commissioners.

But, no.

The county commissioners went the way of playing defense, and put up roadblocks. They are shouting out the opposite message, that they have a deal too sweet to bear public scrutiny.  And that would be why we need a charter change, so the public can re-take control of commissioner salaries.

The county handled this foolishly.

Here is a link to the records request and a link to the longer exchange between the charter-change organizers and the county. Read for yourself. You will see.

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I am part of the salary history being requested. I was elected County Commissioner in 1980 notwithstanding the Reagan landslide election. A key element of my campaign was my criticism of the pay raise the commissioners had recently implemented. Writing from memory, the prior board raised their salaries from about $27,000/year to a little over $30,000/year. I said I would refuse the raise by gifting the raise back to local charities, and I did so. Shortly afterwards, the bottom dropped out of the O&C income the county relied upon, and the Commissioners voted to return salaries back to the prior level. I thought I was well worth the salary I was paid in the role that the commissioners then had, but I understood that that the public was skeptical and disagreed. They are still skeptical, now more than ever, for good reason.

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Mike Steely said...

Maybe the petition drive leaders could get the Rogue Valley Times to request the information for them and make it public. It would be interesting to see if the county considers the paper a meaningful disseminator. Josephine County didn’t. We knew there’d be opposition to making the commissioner positions non-partisan. Republicans will view it as a threat to their power, even though the job isn’t supposed to be partisan.

Oh well. Today being Thanksgiving, I’m just grateful to those few Republicans who resisted pressure to overthrow the government, putting loyalty to the Constitution above the party. I’ll bet when they took their oath of office, they never expected that honoring it would result in death threats.

Ed Cooper said...

I smell the hands of Danny Jordan all over the ham handed attempt to cover up the Commissioners Compensation. A deep dive into the County Administrators sweetheart Compensation package should also be included in any investigation.
I have the pleasure of being the Team Leader for our Circulators in Gold Hill. My experiences so far have been nearly 100 % pleasing, and what I've experienced so far is that by leading with the fact that our Board are the highest paid Commissioners in not only Oregon, but in the Nation when compared to Counties of a similar size, people are ready to sign the Petitions. The Non Partisan and increase from 3 to 5 become secondary, but most everybody is happy to sign.
Mikes idea about the Rogue Valkey Timrs is great, and the Daily Courier also does some very good investigative reporting on matters like this. Both papers scored some very good reporters from the old Muddy Tributary, and this is a great subject for local papers.

Anonymous said...

It’s not just boneheaded, it’s bureaucratic. Bureaucracies are more interested in standardized processes than efficiency or simplicity.

A simple answer is that Commissioners are overpaid by at least $30,000. Go to Peter’s 1980 salary of $30,000, adjusted for inflation, is worth $112,016 today. Or, if you prefer, the $27,000 salary in 1980 would grow to approximately $100,000 with cumulative inflation of 273%.

If the Commissioners were smart, they would concede the point and take a $43,000 salary cut. But if they’re greedy.... crickets.
Better question: what is being bought by their silence?

Ed Cooper said...

Anonymous @ 10:31, a good place to start looking would be the Chamber if Commerce and also the Jackson County Republican Party Election Denial group.

Anonymous said...

An experienced reference librarian might be able to help. In all fairness, it could be challenging to go all the way back to 1975, just sayin. Those records may not exactly be handy (buried in storage).

Jennifer said...

I almost got hives reading this because it took me back to the tortured analysis I had to go through when responding to federal FOIA requests. In a few cases I wanted to release information or grant a fee waiver but was prevented by a full-time FOIA official because they were worried about setting a bad precedent. If we do it for them, we’ll have to do it for the [insert disreputable group]. But I don’t think a tortured analysis is required here. The county looks silly. They may be willing to waste thousands of dollars of county officials’ time fighting this because of some principle, but if the DA has any sense they will tell the Commissioners to grant the fee waiver. So many regulations on information requests were written many decades ago. The government needs to keep up with the current means of disseminating information. You are right.