Graphic by Amber McAlary/News-Register
Graphic by Amber McAlary/News-Register

Olson: Is time right for county to embrace home rule?

What is home rule? Should Yamhill County consider a move in that direction?

Under home rule, local government retains all powers of self-governance except those specifically pre-empted under state or federal law. In the absence of prohibition, it empowers local jurisdictions, both city and county, to act. It is, in essence, a form of local control giving citizens more say in government operations.

Rick Olson was elected to the Yamhill County Board of Commissioners in 2016, following 36 years of public service with the city of McMinnville. With the city, he served on the planning commission, council and budget committee, then logged eight years as mayor. He’s also held board posts with the League of Oregon Cities, McMinnville Area Chamber of Commerce and Yamhill County Parkway Committee. A resident of McMinnville since 1957, he raised five children with his wife, Candy. He worked for Oregon Mutual Insurance until his retirement in 2012.

Historically, counties were created and maintained as mere administrative districts to perform functions and duties on behalf of the sovereign. In England, that was the Crown. In America, that meant the colonial governors prior to independence and state governments afterward.

In addition to their role as agents of the state, counties gradually a secondary role as a unit of local government, providing services in response to the needs and preferences of their constituents.

Both as agents of the state and units of local government, however, they continued to operate under legal interpretations, confining their powers to those expressly granted under state law. As a result, counties were unable to act in response to local needs without express authority from the Legislature.

Efforts to free counties from state constraints date back as far as 1906, but were largely unsuccessful until a county home rule constitutional amendment was adopted in 1958.

In Oregon, 27 counties, including Yamhill, remain under traditional restrictions today. They are known as general law counties.

The other nine — Benton, Clatsop, Hood River, Jackson, Josephine, Lane, Multnomah, Washington and Umatilla — have thrown off the yoke to become self-governing home rule counties. And others have considered or are currently contemplating such a move.

The basic requirements of a home rule charger are specific in Article VI, Section 10 of the Oregon Constitution. At a minimum, it says, a county charter “shall prescribe the organization of the county government and shall provide directly, or by its authority, for the number, election or appointment, qualifications, tenure, compensation, powers and duties of such officers as the county deems necessary.”

The process starts with creation of a county charter committee, either by a board of commissioners’ resolution or citizen petition. The petition route sets the signature requirement at 4% of the local votes cast in the last election of a governor to a four-year term.

Once the requirement is met, the county board of commissioners appoints four members and the county legislative delegation appoints four more. Those eight settle on a ninth.

The law forbids appointment of any local county commissioner or legislator, or anyone engaged in business “inconsistent with the conscientious performance” of committee duties.

The committee has two years to develop a charter for submission to voters. The county must provide it with free office space and either 1% per capita or $500 to help fund its expenses.

The committee is authorized to conduct interviews and pursue investigations. It is required to conduct at least one public hearing on the document it produces for consideration by voters.

The original vote on the charter and votes on any amendment, revision or repeal must normally be submitted at a biennial primary or general election. However, under a 1977 Court of Appeals decision (Brummel v. Clark, 31 Or App 405), an amendment may be put to a vote at a special election if the county charter so allows.

As an alternative, a county charter may be prepared and submitted directly to voters via initiative petition.

The charter establishes the number of commissioners, along with their status and pay structure. It may also decide the number, status and pay structure of administrative officers or other county officers and employees.

In addition, it serves as a vehicle to address operations and intergovernmental relations; ordinance, initiative and referendum procedures; personnel protections and procedures; budgeting, spending and finance issues; procedures for the transition into the new charter system; and various other matters. Some home rule counties have taken a minimalist approach and others have packed their charters with many pages of detail.

That allows a county to structure its operation to best meet local needs, and to make alterations as circumstances change. They are not stuck with a fixed state mandate.

Given that degree of latitude, a local charter would provide more autonomy for the citizens of Yamhill County to decide how Yamhill County should be governed. It would allow them to decide:

Which officials should be appointed versus elected, and which should serve on a paid versus lay basis. How many commissioners should serve on the governing board, whether they should be chosen at large or by district; how they should be compensated, and how the board chairmanship should be decided. What role citizens should have in the decisionmaking process.

Cities in Oregon enjoy wide home rule latitude, and a charter would put the county on an equal basis.

Along the way, it would enable the county to provide rural areas with services currently limited to urban areas, should constituents consent — for example, establish a lodging tax to support tourism or enact a tax measure to fund rural bridge replacement of broadband internet service.

I encourage everyone to learn about home rule and what it could or would mean to Yamhill County. If you want more information, please feel free to contact me at or

The people, not the politicians, should decide what form of government they want, who should head it up and how it should be administered.


A New Generation

Heartening to hear. If you truly believe this, why didn't you vote with Commissioner Kulla to start the committee back when he proposed it in May? I'd be interested in your comments, Commissioner Olson.

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