Making Democracy Work

County Government in Marion and Polk Counties (2005)

What does county government do? How open to the public is it?

A study of Marion and Polk County government was adopted at Annual Meeting 2004 to examine the legal basis of county government, structure and funding, departments and their responsibilities, and duties of commissioners. The study committee was also interested in how well the two counties follow the Public Meetings and Open Records Laws. The following information applies to both Marion and Polk Counties unless indicated otherwise.

Legal basis of county government

Originally counties functioned as agents of the state government. The legislature made the rules, and anything a county wanted to do differently had to first be approved by the legislature. A 1958 constitutional amendment authorized counties to adopt "home rule" charters. Neither Marion nor Polk County did so, but a 1973 state law gave all counties the power to exercise broad "home rule" authority. According to the national Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Oregon's counties now have the highest degree of local discretionary authority of any state in the nation.

Elected officials

County Commissioners--Marion and Polk Counties are among the 24 of Oregon's 36 counties that operate under a board of commissioners (BOC) of three members elected countywide to 4-year terms. In Marion and Polk Counties these are partisan races. Commissioners, who are full-time, salaried officials, have executive, legislative, and quasi-judicial powers (the latter in land-use cases). The annual salary for each Marion County Commissioner is $65,728, and a 401-K plan is available. The Polk County Commissioners receive just under $60,000; of that, $250 per month is an expense account.

The Board of Commissioners serves as the governing body. The commissioners elect their chair annually; in practice, in Marion County the chair rotates annually. The BOC is responsible for accepting funds from sources outside the county (See Revenue charts below), strategic planning, and enacting ordinances as needed to carry out plans and serve the public. The BOC also prepares a county budget in cooperation with the elected heads of the various departments. The BOC is required by law to appoint a Budget Officer who presents a budget to the Budget Committee composed of the Commissioners and three public members. The Budget Committee can recommend changes to the proposed budget, and then the final budget is adopted by the Commissioners.

County commissioners appoint and oversee non-elected department heads, officers, boards, and commissions. Commissioners meet regularly with officials of most of the cities in the county so that necessary coordination of efforts can occur. They also meet with state and federal officials since many issues come under those jurisdictions. All meetings are open to the public except for those dealing with employee matters, lawsuits, and similar issues. (See "Public Meetings Law" on Page 7)

Other elected officials--The Assessor is elected for a 4-year term in a non-partisan race in Marion County and a partisan race in Polk County. The other elected officials--Clerk, Treasurer, District Attorney, Sheriff, and Justices of the Peace--are elected countywide in non-partisan races for 4-year terms. These officers are not accountable to the Board of Commissioners although they work with the commissioners in establishing a county budget. All are full-time, paid county officers.

Departments and services

The two counties offer basically the same services although organized a bit differently. Polk County has less population so has fewer departments than does Marion County.

Assessor--The Assessor's office is responsible for assessing the value of all property in the county, including commercial, industrial, rural and urban properties, manufactured structures, and business personal property. (Large industrial properties are assessed by the Oregon Department of Revenue.) The Assessor's office also manages special programs such as veterans' exemptions, senior deferrals, special assessments, and enterprise zone exemptions.

In Marion County the elected Assessor is also the appointed Tax Collector. In Polk County, commissioners appoint a Tax Collector, who serves in the elected Treasurer's Office.

Business Services (Called Central Services in Polk County)--To assist the Board of Commissioners and the Chief Administrative Officer (Marion County) or the Director (Polk County) in managing County operations, employees prepare budgets and handle purchasing, contracts, employment, payroll, risk management, and other financial matters.

The Facilities Management (Facilities Maintenance in Polk County) division maintains county buildings and grounds; provides custodial care for county buildings, and maintains telecommunications equipment.

Children & Families--In Marion County the Department of Children & Families provides staff support to the Marion County Children & Families Commission. In Polk County the staff support is housed within the Human Services Department.

County Clerk--The Clerk is responsible for elections. The Clerk's office maintains the registration list of all the voters in the county and conducts all elections in the county--including state, county, cities, school districts, and special districts. Marion County produces a Voters' Pamphlet (both printed and on-line); Polk County does not. In 2005 the counties worked with the Secretary of State's Office to select electronic voting equipment so that people with disabilities can vote in private.

The Clerk's office also records and maintains the official record of deeds, mortgages, liens, and other property records and provides easy access to these records. Birth and death certificates as well as marriage licenses and passport applications are issued through this office, which also maintains the county archives, including all ordinances and resolutions approved by the Board of Commissioners as well as minutes of past meetings. The Clerk also staffs the Board of Property Tax Appeals. County Fair--The County Fair Board organizes the County Fair and the county's booth at the State Fair.

District Attorney--The D.A. is elected and is a state official although his employees work for the county. The D.A.'s office prosecutes criminal cases. Polk County does not have separate divisions in the D.A.'s office as does Marion County, but the responsibilities are the same. These are enforcement of child-support orders, investigation of suspicious and unwitnessed deaths to determine their causes, direct victim services, and advocacy for victims of child abuse or domestic violence. The D.A.'s office cooperates with all law enforcement agencies and also participates in inter-agency teams regarding major crime, child abuse, narcotics, and domestic violence.

Economic Development--In Marion County Economic Development operates out of the BOC office. An Economic Development Advisory Board makes recommendations to the BOC on investment of video lottery funds in the community and to provide analysis and advice about ordinances and policies that enhance or create barriers to economic development. In Polk County, economic and infrastructure development as well as administration of grant programs that support these activities are handled in the Community Development office.

Health (Marion County) and Human Services (Polk County)--This department offers public health education and services, including family planning; pre-natal care advice; abuse counseling and referral; immunizations; counseling, prevention, treatment, and tracking of communicable diseases, including HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, and water-, food-, and vector-borne (transmitted by rats, mosquitoes, etc.) diseases.

The Marion County Health Department inspects and licenses all restaurants, school cafeterias, and other food vendors and issues food handler permits. It regulates many of the public drinking water supplies in the county, inspects public pools, summer camps, motels/hotels/RV parks. In Polk County the Environmental Health Division of the Community Development Department handles these responsibilities and also administers the solid waste collection franchise ordinance and coordinates recycling efforts (which, in Marion County come under Public Works).

The Health Department contracts with providers of specific services, such as the federally funded WIC nutritional program for women with infants and young children, mental health services for children and adults, alcohol and drug prevention programs, and gambling treatment and prevention. The Health Department also provides case management services to people with developmental disabilities.

Housing Authority--The Housing Authority is a non-profit corporation with the three county commissioners serving as the board of directors. Financed primarily with state and federal grants and loans, the Authority works with builders, local banks, and other community partners to build and maintain affordable housing for eligible families and individuals. It also provides housing assistance to low-income families, elderly people, and people with disabilities (excluding Salem and Keizer, which have their own Housing Authority).

Information Technology--In Marion County, under the leadership of an appointed director, the IT department provides technical support for county departments and establishes consistent, countywide hardware and software standards, processes, and procedures. In Polk County, IT is a responsibility of Central Services.

Justice Courts--Marion County has two Justice Courts, each led by an elected, nonpartisan Justice of the Peace. Justice Courts are the county equivalent of municipal courts and are located in east Salem, Stayton, and Woodburn. Funded by the county, Justice Courts handle minor traffic offenses, some misdemeanors, and small civil claims as well as cases relating to violations of county ordinances, such as charges of excessive noise or dogs running at large, as well as boating or wildlife violations. Justices of the peace perform weddings at no charge if performed at their offices during regular business hours. (Most misdemeanors, all felonies, and civil cases are heard in state courts located in the Marion and Polk County Courthouses.)

Juvenile Department-- The Juvenile Department under an appointed director/manager holds delinquent youth and their parents accountable through assessment, intervention, skill development, and restitution to victims. The department's philosophy is that youth and family can improve their behavior and skills when motivation, opportunity and encouragement are provided. The department provides alternative work programs, juvenile counseling services, a juvenile detention facility, and juvenile probation offices.

Legal Counsel--Appointed by the Board of Commissioners, the Office of Legal Counsel provides legal advice to the Board of Commissioners and to county departments. The office represents the county in tort claims, personnel actions and discrimination claims, labor matters, land use and planning appeals, public records matters, code enforcement, constitutional challenges, foreclosure and lien actions, fiscal and taxation matters, etc., as well as approving, modifying, or disapproving contracts, agreements, ordinances, policies and other county actions. The Marion County Law Library provides legal information services to the courts, judges, attorneys, and the general public.

Public Works cover the following responsibilities: Building Inspection (Marion County) and Building Division (Polk County) issue building permits (as well as electrical and plumbing permits) for new construction and remodeling of buildings in unincorporated areas of the county. In Polk County the Building Division also handles these services for the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. Code Enforcement (Marion County) and Code Compliance (Polk County) enforce ordinances on graffiti, noise, weeds, off-road vehicles, land use, building code and on-site septic violations, rights-of-way and driveway violations; dumping and garbage, and road hazards in unincorporated areas.

Dog Control responds to complaints, rescues injured dogs, and provides rabies control; the division is funded primarily by dog licenses. Marion County, which has relied on the Humane Society, is building a dog shelter.

Emergency Management includes preparedness in cooperation with groups such as the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), the Department of Homeland Security, the American Red Cross, and Amateur Radio Emergency Services. The Emergency Management division also disseminates emergency information, such as road closures. In Polk County the Emergency Manager works in the Sheriff's Department.

Engineering designs and updates road and bridge projects, manages maintenance contracts, and issues permits for driveways, utilities, development, and activities/events in the right of way.

Operations (Marion County) and Road Maintenance (Polk County) do road and bridge maintenance, brush cutting, snow and ice removal, road sign installation and maintenance, etc. In Marion County Operations manages the Wheatland and Buena Vista Ferries.

Environmental Services (Marion County) and Environmental Health Division (Polk County) manage the franchises for garbage disposal, landfills, trash transfer stations, recycling, and in Marion County the Waste-to-Energy Facility (trash burner) in Brooks.

The Parks Department (Marion) and Central Services (Polk) manage rural parks owned by the County.

The Planning Division (Marion County) and Community Development Department (Polk) manage the Comprehensive Land Use Plan, administer zoning regulations, and do long-range land use planning. They issue land use permits, review site development plans, oversee flood plain administration (non-structural, such as fill and removal), perform hazard mitigation planning, and coordinate land use policy with cities, other counties, and state agencies.

The Surveyor's office reviews pending subdivision and partition plat maps for accuracy and maintains plat maps and private survey maps. This office also assists the public with locating records.

Sheriff--The elected sheriff is responsible for the county jail (where people arrested for crimes in the cities as well as unincorporated areas of the county are booked and, for serious crimes, held until trial). Once criminals are convicted, they serve their sentences in the county jail (or in a state prison) or on probation supervised by the Sheriff's Office. When criminals are released, in Marion County the Sheriff's Office supervises their parole; in Polk County the office of Community Corrections has the supervision monitoring responsibility. The Sheriff provides law enforcement for rural areas of the county as well as for cities which have no police departments and also assists some cities that do have police departments with coverage at night or on weekends. In Polk County the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde contract with the Polk County Sheriff for patrol and related services. The Sheriff's Office in both counties provides security and serves orders and warrants for the state courts housed in the county courthouse.

Tax Collector: The Tax Office is responsible for the collection and administration of property taxes after the Assessor's office has set values and calculated the tax. The Tax Office mails property tax statements in October and payment is due by November 15. (See Fiscal charts below for the amount of property taxes paid in each county.)

Treasurer: The elected Treasurer receives and deposits all revenues, makes tax refunds as directed by the Tax Office, supervises the accounts payable process, reconciles all bank accounts, makes investments, provides auditing, assists the budget officer during annual budget development, and has other financial duties.

In addition:

Children & Families Commission--Local Commissions on Children & Families were established under state law to facilitate planning in each county, to mobilize communities to support children and families, and to create and sustain a family support system. The BOC appoints the members of the Children & Families Commission, a majority of whom, including the chair, must be laypersons from the community who reflect the county's diverse populations and as a group have expertise in the developmental stages of a child, from the prenatal stage through 18 years of age.

Volunteer opportunities--Marion County has 26 volunteer committees. Among these are the Alcohol and Drug Planning Committee, Budget Committee, Children & Families Commission, Council of Economic Advisors, Economic Development Advisory Board, Fair Board, Health Advisory Board, Parks Commission, Planning Commission, and Solid Waste Management Advisory Council. For information on these and other volunteer opportunities, contact the Volunteer Coordinator (see Resources below for phone, e-mail, and website addresses).

The committees in Polk County that have positions for community volunteers are the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council, Budget Committee, Children & Families, Health Advisory Committee, Planning Commission, Dog Board, Fair Board, and the Committee for Citizen Involvement. Polk County usually advertises in the local newspaper when there is a vacancy on any of the boards. A website listing volunteer opportunities in Polk county departments (Sheriff's office, Court Appointed Special Advocates, etc.) is being developed; the telephone number of the volunteer coordinator and an application form are on the website (see Resources below).

Finances

To pay for the services enumerated in the preceding section, counties receive revenue from a variety of sources, which are summarized in the following charts. Marion County's budget is on the county's website on the webpage of the Board of Commissioners. Polk County's budget may be examined in the offices of the Board of Commissioners and purchased for $25.

All Funds Chart

Notes on All Funds Revenues

New working capital/Beginning Balance: Fund balance computed to the end of the Fiscal Year that is available as a resource in the ensuing FY.

Marion County's Net Working Capital is composed of several dedicated fund sources; these include the Solid Waste Fund at approximately $20 million, Oregon Transportation Investment Act bridge and other highway funds spent over several years, and a Risk Fund (since the County is self-insured).

Polk County's Beginning Balance includes $13,700,000 from Oregon Transportation Investment Act III Bridge Replacement, distributed as a lump sum for a three-year period. This money will replace seven bridges in the county.

Intergovernmental: Federal and state funds for specific programs.

State Gas Tax: Taxes that must be used for roads with 1% for bike lanes.

Property taxes: Current and delinquent years collections, interest and penalties.

O & C: Oregon & California Distribution Federal Payment in Lieu of tax projected at Congressional guaranteed level.

Charges for Services: Marriage licenses, court filing and recording, etc.

Transfer from other funds: Interfund operating transfers into the General Fund (Lottery, Criminal Justice assessments, liquor law, etc.) to augment the recipient fund's budget, not for payment for any services.

Administrative Cost Recoveries/Management Service Fees: Assessments of administrative charges to other departments.

Miscellaneous/All Other Revenues: For example, traffic and parking fines and penalties.

General Fund Support: Funds received by the General Fund for specific purposes and transferred to those programs.

Public Meetings and Public Records Laws

Public Meetings Law: Oregon's Public Meetings Law was enacted in 1973 to make sure that all meetings of governing bodies at which there is a quorum and government business is discussed are open to the public. This includes meetings called to gather information for subsequent decisions or recommendations. The law also requires that the public be given notice of the time, place, and agenda of meetings and that meetings be accessible to everyone, including persons with disabilities. (From A Quick Reference Guide to Oregon's Public Meetings Law) For definitions of terms, see ORS 192.630(1) under Oregon Revised Statutes at end of report.

The law requires that adequate notice must be given to interested persons and the media who have requested in writing that they be notified of meetings and that agendas must be specific enough that people can recognize matters of interest to them.

Minutes are required for all meetings; they may be written or recorded by audio, video, or digital equipment. The Attorney General's Public Records and Meetings Manual lists what the minutes must include, such as the members present; all motions, resolutions, ordinances, etc., that were considered; and the decisions made. The individual officials' votes must be recorded; no secret ballots are allowed. Written minutes need not be verbatim unless otherwise required by law, and minutes must give a true reflection of the matters discussed and the views of the participants. The minutes are public record, and any citizen may see them. An exception is minutes for executive sessions for limited purposes (employee matters and labor negotiations, discussion with counsel concerning litigation, and real property negotiations). While the public may be excluded from executive sessions, in general the media may not, although the media may be required to refrain from disclosing the information. (See ORS.192.650 and ORS 192.660(4) under Resources below.)

Public Records Law: The Attorney General's manual requires that any written or other material containing information relating to the conduct of the public's business, including pictures, maps, sounds, symbols, videotapes, and e-mail, are covered by the law, even if the public body did not prepare the materials. Requests for records must be made under the Oregon Public Records Law (not the federal Freedom of Information Act). A custodian of public records must provide "proper and reasonable" opportunities for inspection and examination of the records. The Public Records Law is primarily a disclosure law, and exemptions to it are few because the law favors public access to government records.

Are the Public Meetings and Public Records Laws observed?

Several members of the LWVMPC County Government Study Committee observed meetings held January through May 2005, of the following agencies and advisory boards: Marion County Children and Families Commission Marion County Economic Development Advisory Board Marion County Fair Board Marion County Family Systems Investment Consortium Marion County Health Advisory Board Marion County Public Safety Coordinating Council Marion County Solid Waste Management Advisory Council Polk County Public/Mental Health Advisory Committee

The League observers looked for meeting notices in newspapers and the county web page. At first, there were no notices or only sporadic notices in the local newspaper, but later in the spring the Itemizer Observer in Polk County began a periodic column of public meetings titled "Public Agenda." The Statesman Journal prints notices for at least some meetings, usually on the day of the meeting. Although governmental bodies are required to send notices, newspapers are not required to print them, so notices are published intermittently. In both counties the commissioners' meetings, agendas, and minutes are available on the countys' web pages. Advisory boards with regular meeting dates are on the Marion County web site; a similar web page is under development in Polk County. In both counties, a citizen may ask in writing to be notified of meetings and receive agendas to allow the citizen to see whether her topic of interest is on the agenda for that meeting. E-mail makes meeting notification easy and inexpensive for the counties.

League observers also looked at accommodations for the public--whether the meeting location was wheelchair accessible, there was adequate seating, and citizens could hear the proceedings (whether or not there was a public address system); observers found the meeting locations adequate in most cases. A person needing sign language/translator must request the service at least 48 hours before the meeting.

Agendas were followed by most (but not all) of the groups, and citizens could ask questions whether or not there was a specific time on the agenda for citizen questions. Decisions were sometimes made by consensus, but generally a formal vote was taken.

For most of the groups observed, the agendas would enable a citizen to know what would be discussed at a meeting (although one would have to be on the group's notification list to receive an agenda). Similarly, for most groups minutes were available either at the meeting or by request but not on the county's website. Some minutes were so brief that it was impossible to know the reasons for decisions made at the meeting, and some subcommittees did not take minutes. In summary, League observers found considerable variation in the extent to which groups followed the Public Meetings Laws.

Marion County Commissioners are working to improve government openness and ensure that training is provided for all pertinent employees. Marion County held an in-service meeting on the Public Meetings and Public Records Laws for county employees in December 2004 and has on its website a section called Marion County Handbook for Staff Managing Advisory Boards. On March 1, 2005, The Association of Oregon Counties and the League of Oregon Cities conducted a statewide Newly Elected Officials Workshop. It included a presentation on Public Meetings and Public Records Laws, and each participant was given a binder full of material on open meetings and other topics. Agendas and minutes are available on the websites of both counties for commissioners' meetings. For other Marion County boards and commissions, only meeting times and locations are given; Polk County's website does not cover other boards and commissions.

League observers noted that employees in both counties welcomed League attendance at meetings and were glad to send those meeting notices, agendas, and minutes by e-mail, which has little cost in contrast to postal service.

CCTV broadcasts meetings of the Marion County Commissioners on Cable Channel 21; see newspaper TV guide for times.

Conclusion

County government provides a variety of services to county residents. For the most part, county government operates openly, and interested citizens (especially those with Internet access) can, with some effort, be informed of what is going on. Commissioners' meeting dates and times are on the county web site along with agendas and minutes of past meetings. Since the commissioners make all the final decisions, their openness is the most critical.

Regarding county advisory committees, there is room for improvement in following the Public Meetings and Public Records Laws. League members and other citizens interested in observing county groups can show them that citizens want and appreciate open government.

Resources

Marion County: http://www.co.marion.or.us Marion County Volunteer Coordinator, 503-588-7990; e-mail: volunteer@co.marion.or.us; webpage:
http://www.co.marion.or.us, click on Volunteer Opportunities.

Polk County: http://www.co.polk.or.us Polk County Volunteer Opportunities: 503-623-8173; e-mail: Wheeler.Jennifer@co.polk.or.us; webpage:
www.co.polk.or.us; click on Volunteering in Polk.

References

A Quick Reference Guide to Oregon's Public Meetings Law, Open Oregon, 1999 Attorney General's Public Records and Meetings Manual, by the Oregon Department of Justice, Hardy Myers, Attorney General, January 2004 Interviews with Marion County Commissioners Sam Brentano, Janet Carlson, Patty Milne, January 2005 Interview with Polk County Commissioner Ron Dodge, January 2005 Jennifer Wheeler, Secretary to Polk County Board of Commissioners, June and July 2005 Linda Fox, Polk County Treasurer and Finance Director for Polk County, March 2005 Richard Minaker, Chief Budget Analyst for Marion County, March 2005 Marion County website: http://www.co.marion.or.us Polk County website: http://www.co.polk.or.us

Oregon Revised Statutes

ORS 192.630(1) states: All meetings of the governing body of a public body shall be open to the public and all persons shall be permitted to attend any meetings except as otherwise provided by ORS 192.610 to 192.690. "Governing body" means the members of any public body which consists of two or more members, with the authority to make decisions for or recommendations to a public body on policy or administration.

"Public body" means the state, any regional council, county, city or district, or any municipal or public corporation, or any board, department, commission, council, bureau, committee or subcommittee or advisory group or any other agency thereof.

"Meeting" means the convening of a governing body of a public body for which a quorum is required in order to make a decision or to deliberate toward a decision on any matter. "Meeting" does not include any on-site inspection of any project or program. "Meeting" also does not include the attendance of members of a governing body at any national, regional or state association to which the public body or the members belong.

"Quorum": The Attorney General has found that when the enabling legislation does not specify the number required for a quorum, that a majority is implicit because ORS 174.130 defines "quorum" as a "majority." Since a subcommittee is a public body, when a quorum of a governing body of a subcommittee convenes to deliberate or make recommendations, then it is a "meeting" within the above definition.

ORS 192.650 "Recording or written minutes required; content; fees. (1) The governing body of a public body shall provide for the sound, video or digital recording or the taking of written minutes of all its meetings. Neither a full transcript nor a full recording of the meeting is required except as otherwise provided by law, but the written minutes or recording must give a true reflection of the matters discussed at the meeting and the views of the participants. All minutes or recordings shall be available to the public within a reasonable time after the meeting, and shall include at the least the following information: (a) All members of the governing body present; (b) All motions, proposals, resolutions, orders, ordinances and measures proposed and their disposition; (c) The results of all votes and except for public bodies consisting of more than 25 members unless requested by a member of that body, the vote of each member by name; (d) The substance of any discussion on any matter; and (e) Subject to ORS 192.410 to 192.505 relating to public records, a reference to any document discussed at the meeting.

(2) Minutes of executive sessions shall be kept in accordance with subsection (1) of this section. However, the minutes of a hearing held under ORS 332.061 shall contain only the material not excluded under ORS 332.061(2)" (relates to student expulsions) "Instead of written minutes, a record of any executive session may be kept in the form of a sound or video tape or digital recording, which need not be transcribed unless otherwise provided by law. If the disclosure of certain material is inconsistent with the purpose for which a meeting under ORS 192.660 is authorized to be held, that material may be excluded from disclosure. However, excluded materials are authorized to be examined privately by a court in any legal action and the court shall determine their admissibility.

ORS 192.660(4) says "Representatives of the news media shall be allowed to attend executive sessions other than those held under subsection (2)(d) of this section relating to labor negotiations or executive session held pursuant to ORS 332.061(2) but the governing body may require that specified information subject of the executive session be undisclosed."

Committee: Cindy Burgess, Helen Drakeley, Tina Hansen, Sally Hollemon (chair), Lois Nuss, Kathy Pugh, Leslie Stafford, Harriet Trill, Ellen Twist

Reviewers (for accuracy of content): Janet Carlson, Marion County Commissioner John Lattimer, Marion County Chief Administrative Officer Ron Dodge, Polk County Commissioner

Published September 2005