Julie McDonald Commentary: Maybe It’s Time for a County Council After All

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After last week, I wonder what Lewis County commissioners do to justify the $90,900 annual salary they draw.

As our elected officials, I considered commissioners the people to contact when you have questions about county government actions or inactions.

So, after last Tuesday’s meeting of the commissioners, I reached out to ask about public testimony given at the meeting.

Scott Crossfield, of Toledo, an Army veteran who has complained for nearly a decade about noise from the nearby gravel mining operation at 451 Mandy Road, said the county approved a 15-year extension of the mining permit without holding public hearings.

That didn’t sound good.

I emailed the county commissioners Tuesday to ask if it was true. Two addresses bounced back, so I emailed the Board of County Commissioners the same day. Nobody responded.

Then I emailed County Manager Erik Martin, who responded quickly. He asked for clarification about which gravel mine, and I gave him the address but heard nothing more.

When I complained to someone about the lack of response, I learned that the commissioners are hiring a public information specialist to funnel responses to the public.

What in the world are commissioners doing? They were elected to represent the public at the county level and communicate with the public when they express concerns. Now they want to funnel their comments through a public information specialist? A full-time employee whose salary ranges from $57,720 to $77,628, plus benefits. We don’t need what may be double-speak from a public information officer; we need the people we elected to directly answer questions.

Mind you, the median household income in Lewis County is $53,484.

In 2017, after turmoil in the county, a hostile work complaint filed against a commissioner and upheaval at the 911 communications center, residents began exploring the possibility of a home rule charter to reorganize county government into a county council with a hired professional administrator overseen by elected county council members who receive stipends instead of large salaries.

To stave off that effort, commissioners created a blue-ribbon task force that recommended hiring a professional county manager with a salary between $100,000 and $125,000, plus benefits, to oversee day-to-day operations of all departments. It didn’t recommend cutting commissioners’ salaries.

In 2018, they hired Martin as county manager. The county needs this position to oversee department heads and provide continuity and institutional knowledge.

Sixteen months into his job, I attended a meeting where Martin gave a presentation about county activities. I asked him if hiring a county manager had cut down the responsibilities and workload of commissioners. He said it freed up commissioners for other work such as lobbying and interacting with the public.

I’m not against public relations specialists; I studied PR in college. But the job of PR people is to reflect their employers in the best light. Some would call it whitewashing.

When we elect people to public office, we hope they’ll tell us the truth. We have no control over a county manager or a public relations specialist who are not elected.

Perhaps with the increased expenditures of a county manager and public relations specialist, it’s time for Lewis County to swap three highly paid county commissioners for an expanded county council, which would give the public more people who might answer their questions.

Switching from three nearly $100,000 salaries to stipends for part-time council members would save the county money too — about the amount it would have cost to maintain the Lewis County senior centers (which remain closed because of coronavirus concerns).

I still don’t know whether the county approved an extension of the Mandy Road gravel mine without public comments. Crossfield, one of eight families affected by the mine, never heard from any county officials after he aired his concerns this past Tuesday.

He did, however, hear from the state Department of Natural Resources, which may require owner Eagle Cliff Northwest LLC of Cathlamet to conduct a State Environmental Policy Act review before the state allows it to expand from 20 to 60 acres along the Cowlitz River. The SEPA would address environmental impacts, including noise from beeping trucks and rock crushers as well as water and air pollution, and allow for public comment. State officials could require the owners to mitigate noise, water and air pollution.

That was a question Crossfield asked commissioners last week — why do some mining operations need to submit a SEPA to the county while others don’t? He never received an answer.

It’s time to reconsider that home rule charter to change the commissioners to a county council.

•••

Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.

Comments

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Matt Evans

I 100% agree with you. A $90,000 salary is out of control as far as compensation for an elected official at the local level goes. I would venture to say the three commissioners cost Lewis County residents around $400,000 per year for salary, taxes, retirement and other benefits + reimbursable expenses for all of their activities. Probably closer to $450,000. The commissioners have a combined experience of zero in running a government agency. As you well pointed out; that is why a County Manager was hired in the first place. Also, a 3 person commission with such high salaries will invite commissioners to settle in and keep running for office so they can maintain their high compensation. It invites corrupt behavior. I am not saying any of our commissioners are corrupt, but...

Bottom line is a council that consisted of seven councilors with 4 year staggered terms with a reasonable per meeting per diem as compensation would be far more representative of the whole, and save a lot of money. We would get a lot higher turn in councilors as well, which would help bring in fresh perspectives and ideas.

When the commission rightfully decided to hire a professional manager to run the day to day, they pretty much abdicated the part of their roles which demanded a full time position and a higher compensation. There should have been a salary reduction at that time as well as different expectations set when it comes to time commitment. Compensation should be in alignment with expertise, level of roles and responsibilities and time committed. Now they are just "lobbyists" (whatever that means) and community outreach people (that they are now abdicating as well) and people who vote on the basic things all commissions and councils vote on around Lewis County. It is certainly time for a change.

Lewis County residents need to wake up to the fact Lewis County government is becoming BIG government with a BIG expense assigned to it. WE are paying for this and not getting a return on our investment for the cost.

Time for another push on changing the form of elected oversight for Lewis County and pushing the BIG out of our local government.

Tuesday, July 27
Bill Serrahn

If true, it's too bad that the BOCC has to hire a PR person to gloss over county problems. They've recently had the problems with the nepotism in the Animal Shelter leading to the degrading of that once highly respected facility and then the debacle where Animal Control let the Walker horses starve for at least 14 months after the Sheriff's deputy's first report of starving horses and a suspected dead horse laying on the property.

The county manager and commissioner instincts seem to be to circle the wagons and hope it all will just soon blow over, rather than do a diligent examination of the root causes of these situations and institute needed changes, which most likely include needed policy, procedural, and management changes and perhaps increased budgets.

They certainly don't want citizen involvement to study, and produce an unbiased recommendation of needed changes, and monitor to assure better service from these county departments. Instead, they will investigate themselves and recommend some management training as they did with the animal shelter. A PR person can help gloss this over.

I was watching the discussion on elected official salaries and Commissioner Salaries yesterday and wondered where they came up with the idea to tie salary increases to the $200K per year Superior Court judge salaries which are determined by the state. They decided to take their own salaries out of this scheme and keep them with the citizen salary commission. The elected salary increases had become a huge issue, especially for former commissioner Edna Fund during election season last year. I guess the goal is to not have that issue come up again in an election season. All increases will happen on the 1st day of the following year.

Tuesday, July 27
Rand

Believe me, you do not want a King County style county council. Once it happens you havec another dictator style government entity with no accountability.

The sad truth is money talks on elections. Find someone with admirable qualities and help gather donations for their election. If you can't do that at the simple commissioner level you certainly can't do it with a council style gov't.

Wednesday, July 28
Former Salary Commission Member

I was on a commission to set salaries for elected officials several years ago, here in Lewis County. We used a formula to take some multiple of the median income for Lewis County residents and used THAT number to determine pay for our BOCC. At the time, BOCC was getting more than $60k a year, but wanted to get the same as neighboring Thurston County at $94k, a year. Despite having a dramatically different median income base.

We are a rural county with a high percentage of retired persons on fixed incomes. The salary commission took that into consideration in our formula for setting salaries. But the BOCC managed to get away from using a salary commission a few years after I left. Perhaps because none of us were relatives or because we had the intestinal fortitude to argue our position using logic and research. The Salary Commission was disbanded after I left. Perhaps they got tired of having their reccommendations ignored.

Hey I know, why not get the head of the animal shelter and her relative on the Public Health team to put their head's together to set salaries for BOCC... The BOCC has no trouble with that level of nepotism, so go full out and take REAL advantage of the gritting. Who's gonna complain?

Wednesday, July 28
partsgirl

The Commissioners need to answer to the public. The questions regarding the gravel mining and SEPA are valid and shouldn't be ignored. The salaries are way to high and the scandal with the animal shelter is just that. A scandal where a real investigation wasn't done. Shame on all of the Commissioners, especially the two newly elected ones who were all about change and working for the people. What a joke!

Thursday, July 29