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 firstname.lastname@example.org.