Notes from the Newsroom:

Scott Swanson

Linn County made a very positive move, both for the county as an organization and for its citizens, when county officials decided, earlier this year, to beef up communication with said citizens.

One obvious outcome of that strategy, signed off on by the Board of Commissioners, which sets policy for the county, is the establishment of a communication officer position, currently occupied by Alex Paul, former publisher of The New Era.

Why, you may wonder, is this significant?

Quick, tell us what you knew about the county’s operations a year ago. Tell us how easy it was to find, for instance, local information about COVID-19. Tell us who the County Administrator was (he’s the top guy on the actual county staff). Tell us how much you’ve enjoyed trying to find your way around a website that looks like it was created in the mid-1990s and lacks basic information one would expect to find, such as a list of prominent staffers with whom the public might want to engage. It’s not easy to navigate, even for those of us who do it when we’re not looking to get a building permit or wondering about rules for barking dogs.

So the good news is that things are changing. The county has started a newsletter that details things of interest to the public and highlights various personalities who impact our daily lives. A new website is in development, we’re told. Paul has been a real help, particularly for local news media who often lack resources necessary to adequately cover the county. More on that in a moment.

There are still things that could and should happen. Despite the fact that nearly every city in Linn County streams its meetings, commissioners meetings are not. You’d think the government organization with the largest budget and staff in the county would be able to make this happen.

The county certainly follows open meetings laws, but traveling 45 minutes from Sweet Home to the courthouse isn’t always very convenient for citizens who work, particularly early on Tuesdays and Wednesday mornings, when the commission’s meetings are held. (Most local city City Council and Planning Commission meetings take place in the evening, which gives working people a chance to be present.)

One of the reasons we appreciate the county’s tooting its own horn is the fact that we, your local newspaper, have found it prohibitively difficult to consistently cover commissioners meetings and other county activities as we would like to. We simply don’t have the staff.

Consequently, by the time we see the minutes from the Board of Commissioners’ meetings, usually a week or two down the road, it’s a little late to write breaking news stories.

So when Paul, a longtime local reporter, who covered the county himself for many years, issues a report of what the board did, it’s helpful to all of us. Even though it’s coming from the county, it’s a lot better than what we had before: pretty much nothing other than whatever the Democrat-Herald has been able to produce.

However, if there’s conflict or drama associated with an issue, we’re probably not going to see that in the nuts-and-bolts report, and that’s where reporting comes in.

Our story on page 1 about the Crawfordsville Drive remand hearing, in which local residents protested a move to develop 108.59 acres that include mapped wildlife habitat, is an example of why we’d like to be at commissioners meetings more often – and why we’d like to see them streamed.

In the case of this remand hearing, residents appealed the county commissioners’ original approval of the project to Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, which reversed the county’s approval. Developers appealed to the state Court of Appeals, which partially reversed LUBA’s decision, and ultimately, the issue went back to the County Commission for the remand hearing that happened last week.

Testimony on the issue was limited to written communication, which was fairly voluminous and detailed, as we reported on Sept. 15, before the hearing.

The commissioners did not hold a public hearing when they made their decision last week, which might have been their legal right, but it wasn’t good policy. They should have. Citizens, who had traveled to be at that meeting, wanted to have their say.

This subdivision is a big deal in a rural neighborhood that’s not unlike a lot of other rural properties in our area. Residents should have had the chance to voice their opinions – in person, not on paper. While we have no reason to doubt that the commissioners had fully reviewed the testimony when they made their decision to approve the project, frankly, the fact that they didn’t allow members of the public to speak did not look good, pure and simple.

Transparency is an issue in situations like this, where there are strong differences of opinion, and public input is crucial. Citizens need to have assurance that they will get due process.

We’ve written previously about how the virtual nature of this year’s state legislative session has resulted in some bad law, partly because legislators sometimes never saw a live face from the public as they dealt with important issues. Making a decision without letting people stand up and speak is bad policy.

As the County Commission takes these steps to connect with the constituents commissioners aren’t already on familiar terms with, they need to consider furthering the transparency of their operations and making sure they’re giving adequate voice to the public.

It’s not like they don’t have time. They thoughtfully arranged to have the meeting at the county Expo Center to make sure there was adequate space for the crowd. Let’s see, who owns that facility? The county. Therefore, if that meeting ran a little long, one would think they could accomodate that.

Unlike city council members in the county who, frankly, are paid so little that they’re essentially volunteers, all three county commissioners are paid more than $100,000 annually. They’re being adequately compensated to spend time listening to what the public has to say.

In an era when the public has become increasingly cynical about government, our county officials should make sure they’re operating in as transparent fashion as possible.