Valerie Blaha: Chaos over cooperation, cronies over competency

Yet again, I’m dismayed with the actions of our county commissioners, this time in regard to their appointments to our parks advisory board.

The board consists of volunteers who care deeply about maintaining and improving our county parks system. From what I can tell from the January and February minutes, and News-Register coverage, they followed their established process of interviewing applicants and chose to recommend three, based on their knowledge, experience and ability to commit to meetings.

The commissioners threw that out the window, along with many hours of volunteer time and energy. Rather than approve the three recommended applications, the commissioners chose to appoint seven, only one of them from the recommended list.

The commissioners could have approved the board’s recommendations, then asked the board to reconsider other applicants in order to fill remaining seats. Or they could have re-opened the application process and asked the board to consider new applicants.

But the commissioners did none of those things. In fact, they completely ignored two of the three recommended applicants, without even discussing what led them to find others better suited.

As was the case with the American Rescue Plan Act grant process last year, the commissioners ignored the work done by volunteers and others. Instead, they decided to micromanage and radically alter processes.

At the meeting in question, Commissioners Johnston and Berschauer expressed a desire to fill all 13 seats on the parks board.

To justify packing the body, which has not historically operated with a full complement of 13, Johnston expressed concerns about the board failing to muster a quorum and having to cancel meetings. Berschauer mentioned a need to move ahead on the Parks Master Plan.

I’ve reviewed the minutes for the past 13 months, and every single meeting drew a quorum. There have been three cancellations since February 2022, two stemming from a decision to wait for the arrival of a new parks director and one, that of December 2022, from his feeling the board did not need to be meeting every month.

Clearly, the concerns about cancellations due to lack of a quorum were trumped-up.

While focusing on the Parks Master Plan is important, a goal of simply filling every seat with a warm body is not the path to a functioning panel. If the commissioners had simply followed the process, the board would have increased from six to nine members, which seems reasonable. Now there are 11 members, as two holdovers quit in protest, and seven of them lack experience with the body and its mission.

In addition, the board will have to deal with a loss of morale and erosion of cohesiveness and trust. It will also face the reduced likelihood of qualified volunteers applying for future county positions.

This is exactly why there processes are in place for elected officials to follow. Willy-nilly, haphazard appointments foster doubt, disorder and chaos.

To make matters worse, the new appointees include the spouse of one of the commissioners, as well as a large donor. And several other of the appointees have political, personal and/or work connections to the commissioners.

This calls into question the fairness of the appointments. It suggests a coordinated effort to reward loyalists and provide Parks Board seats as stepping stones for future commissioner candidates.

Given Berschauer and Starrett’s notable lack of support for county parks projects, it also raises the specter of ulterior motives behind packing this particular board in this particular way. They have prioritized chaos over cooperation and cronies over competency.

This will lead to reduced confidence in the Parks Board and its future recommendations. In addition, it will further reduce confidence in the commissioners’ ability to govern without taint of undue influence, partisanship, cronyism or nepotism.

If the commissioners’ prime internal directive is to reduce trust in government, they’ve been amazingly successful this week. I hesitate to imagine what disturbing and equally dystopian choices they will make in the future.

It’s a sad reflection of our county that we have public servants who clearly aren’t interested in serving the public.

Valerie Blaha is a classically trained pianist, a folk and country singer and songwriter, a veteran piano and guitar teacher and a leading advocate of sustainable agriculture. Former president of the Oregon Farmers’ Markets Association, she partners with her husband in the sustainable Mossback Farm in rural Yamhill.