Charter options limited only by our collective imagination


“Besides the sun, our creativity is the other essentially unlimited resource on the planet.” — contemporary American writer and ecologist Starhawk.

Guest Writer

Casey Kulla a fifth-generation Oregonian, is Yamhill County’s newest commissioner. A Taft High grad, he holds a bachelor’s in biochemistry and master’s in forest ecology from Western Washington University. He and his wife launched Oakhill Organics, a farming operation on Grand Island, 12 years ago. They are also raising a young family. He believes the broadest possible participation in civic life makes for the best possible democracy and decisionmaking.


When we imagine our future, we begin the process of making that future a reality. Without imagination and creativity, our future will happen, but not on our terms.

How can we design our future in our own image and on our own terms?

As a county, one way is to plan for the future. Another is to mold our government to reflect our priorities and vision.

Drafting a county charter enables us to simultaneously plan for the future and form our government in our likeness. So I am in the process of launching such an endeavor.

By default, our county is among 27 shaped by what Oregon statutes require and allow. We call these “general law” counties.

The other nine — Washington, Multnomah, Jackson, Josephine, Umatilla, Clatsop, Benton, Lane and Hood River — have drafted charters establishing alternative structures, missions and workings of their choosing. We call these “home rule” or “charter” counties.

Nearly every city in Oregon is governed by a charter of its own creation, yet it seems counties have been slow to follow suit.

One of the biggest benefits is allowing constituents to codify organizational structure in a way that makes it hard for future officials to change.

For example, in Yamhill County, we have a professional, appointed county administrator who hires and fires, manages the budget, ensures compliance with state and federal laws and directs the staff. He is, effectively, the operations manager.

But the position was created by ordinance. So a future board could eliminate it by a simple majority vote at any time.

If residents appreciate a professional managing the county’s day-to-day affairs — and I certainly do, as it allows commissioners time to make well-informed policy decisions and build useful relationships with county constituents, county staffers and city and state officials — they can establish the administrator position in a charter. That way, it can be changed only by vote of the people.

While the state gives counties great latitude in their affairs and decisionmaking, much of the flexibility is codified in state statutes. And like county ordinances, state statutes can be modified or rescinded at the whim of the Legislature. What the Legislature gives it could just as easily take away.

For example, the Oregon Revised Statutes grant counties permission to change the number and mode of election for commissioners. That could be taken away at any time, unless codified in a charter.

A charter establishes local control over local matters. In fact, the state itself says charters are designed to establish “county control over matters of county concern.”

If we wanted to shape our county in a particular way to address a concern specific to us, we could do that. And the state would have to yield to us.

When we insert something into our charter, we prevent the state from attempting to regulate it. And that works both ways.

Sometimes the state attempts to pre-empt city and county ordinances. For instance, states have prohibited cities and counties from enacting plastic bag bans or enacting sanctuary laws.

On the flip side, counties can ban civil forfeiture for those charged with but not convicted of drug crimes, even if state statute makes provision for it. Local pre-emption represents a powerful tool for a county.

So how do residents of a county draft and adopt a charter? It’s a multi-step process, but we can do it.

First, we initiate a charter review committee, which can be done either by signature-gathering or by order of the county board of commissioners. The committee is empowered to hold meetings and invite testimony about the contents of a county charter. Eventually, it drafts a charter reflecting citizen desires and submits that charter to voters for approval.

Alternatively, a group of voters can draft a charter on its own and gather enough signatures to place it on the ballot.

Washington, Jackson and Josephine are charter counties that feature significant urban centers, but remain culturally rural and economically resource-dependent. We can take their charters, along with a model charter developed by the National Civic League, as guides for drafting our own.

The sky is the limit for what we can include in a charter. I mentioned codifying the role of the county administrator, but what else?

We could choose to elect county commissioners by district. We could increase the number of commissioners, something for which I have advocated.

We could change the mode of election by going to ranked choice or STAR voting for county positions. We could select a November-only election for these positions in order to reduce the cost and maximize voter participation.

We could cap donations to candidates. We could retain paid positions or go to unpaid.

If county residents want their county counsel elected, as in Jackson County, or treasurer appointed, as in Washington County, they could do that through adoption of a charter. They could even create an independent, elected auditor to keep county government transparent and compliant, as in Washington County.

I will advocate for remaining with an elected sheriff, as this is a position I believe should be accountable directly to voters. A charter could so reflect.

Counties have enacted “community benefits” agreements for public construction and contracts. These preference local hiring, local sourcing and environmental sustainability, as in Lane Cunty. We could include this kind of agreement in our charter.

What’s more, we could include a mandatory “look-back” every four years, to make sure our charter continues to work for us into the future.

If you have the time and interest to help draft a charter, get your imagination going and e-mail me at kullac@co.yamhill.or.us.

We have already held two informational and listening sessions, one in Newberg and the other in McMinnville. And we are planning to hold four more in other cities around the county during the first two weeks of 2020.

Take that “I’ve always wished the county did this” vision and help make it a reality.

There are two unlimited resources: the sun and human imagination. Here’s your chance to use your vision and imagination to help shape our county’s future.


Christmas has Talons

I think Portland is a better place for Mr. Kulla they love those new age idea hatcher/time waster government officials. Yamhill county doesn't need five commissioner's but it does need three and with Olsen's constant absences they can't even pull that one off.
Kulla is a nice enough person but he needs to get his head out of the clouds and work on current important issues rather than playing the "what if" game.


Christmas you have Kulla pegged like I did before he got elected. He talked a good farmer story but he’s a liberal progressive just like I figured from the start. He will run this county into the ground with his crazy ideas. And you’re wrong about Portland he needs to be in LosAngeles or San Francisco with his collection of ideas.

Christmas has Talons

Yeah I grew up with a whole lot of Kulla's so I never had the benefit of not knowing who he was. Where I'm from people read your "aura" for free. His idea of farming is growing marijuana real farmers would cringe at Kulla's self designation.


He is a radical left cut from the same cloth as AOC from Brooklyn. They’re chomping at the bit and scheming to make this county into the fourth urban county and join Metro. I don’t want to have anything to do with the destruction of our formerly beautiful county. It’s California now and yes I’m also a fifth generation native Yamhill Countyite but I am looking to exodus from this cesspool they made it California.


If we had a home rule county could we as a county pass an anti sanctuary law ordinance or would we still have to follow the Portland law?


I have yet to see any evidence from you or anyone else that there is any individual, faction, party or force anywhyere in Yamhill County seeking a merger into Metro.
What's the basis for this claim you keep making? Do you just make this stuff up out of whole cloth?
Show me where anyone has advocated anything of the sort. That's just utter nonsense.


I can't quite put my finger on what it is, but something just doesn't feel right about this Kulla guy.


Joel, Maybe the fact that Kulla is honest and cares about the future of the county is what doesn't "feel right" to you.


Raven , so we are turning the county into the Bay Area with more urbanization, tons of population and government and bureaucracy is this your idea of “caring for the county?” Maybe you belong in San Mateo or Mountain View with this attitude?


Greg: You should run for county commissioner. I am confident that you are the only person (in the entire world) who could save all of us from the corruption we face every day. I’ll be rooting for you.


@Drew — NO way I would want to be a political anywhere in this state !

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