By editorial board • 

Appointing surveyor a small but welcome step

A move is underfoot in Yamhill County to make the surveyor appointive rather than elective. We view that as a small step in the right direction. We only wish the stage were set for more sweeping changes.

An old saying has it that the camel was created by a committee charged with designing a horse. If so, one could be forgiven for assuming the same committee designed county government, because, in its raw “general law” state, it’s equally ungainly.

In truth, that’s not far off the mark. County government actually was created by Viking invaders in late 11th century England.

Previously fragmented among feudal lords, England was first unified in 927. And one of the new kingdom’s pressing needs — some things never change — was a steady stream of tax revenue.

About the time invading Vikings were consolidating their hold in the Normandy region of France, across the English Channel, England’s fledgling monarchy was busily dividing the country into shires charged with collecting property taxes.

The shires each were overseen by a shire reeve, soon shortened to sheriff. That explains the Sheriff of Nottingham, who was bedeviled by Robin Hood, the most famous of tax rebels.

When King Edward died childless, his cousin William, Duke of Normandy, was among several claimants to the throne. A powerful Earl ascended initially, but William led a Norman army across the channel to overthrow him in 1066.

Among William’s early acts was replacing shires run by sheriffs with counties run by counts. By now, the counts are long gone, at least in the New World, but the counties remain, vestige of ancient Viking warriors.

In the United States, cities and counties have no federal standing, only states. And initially, the states accorded them very limited roles.

That began to change in 1906, when six states, including Oregon, granted cities expanded powers under the “home rule” doctrine. Oregon extended the home rule option to counties in 1958, and in 1973 expanded their sphere of authority even if they had not adopted home rule charters.

Nine of Oregon’s 36 counties embraced home rule between 1962 (Washington and Lane) and 1993 (Umatilla). In the process, they typically switched to mostly appointed department heads, a strong central administrator and a governing board of five lay members — the same model cities and school districts have long followed to good effect.

Then-Commissioner Dennis Goecks led a concerted effort to add Yamhill County to the state’s home rule ranks in the late 1980s, but voters gave it a decisive drubbing in 1989. Unfortunately, a renewed attempt in the mid-90s fared no better.

A chief administrative officer could have administrative responsibilities similar to those of city managers and school superintendents. It makes no sense in today’s world for the county to pay three full-time elected commissioners, and even less to have elected officials in some other county positions.

However, in the real world, you settle for what’s possible. If that’s limited at the moment to making the surveyor appointive, so be it.

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