Casey Kulla: Accountability starts with clear expectations

##Casey Kulla
##Casey Kulla

‘What do county commissioners do?” That was the most frequent question when I ran for Yamhill County commissioner in 2018.

Admittedly, I had to do some research in order to give folks the simplest, most accurate answer. I usually responded on this order: “County commissioners approve the budget, set the course, make the highest-profile land use decisions and serve as the county’s public face for state and federal officials.”

Never did I imagine that a complete answer would include, “They can also harass county employees, other elected officials and volunteers with little recourse. And they can settle political scores, promote their political donors and allies, and generate chaos.”

In the past six weeks, our Yamhill County commissioners have voted to exclude county elected officials from a county anti-harassment policy and packed the Parks & Recreation Advisory Board with political allies, immediate family and supporters.

As the News-Register reported earlier this year, the commissioners specifically excluded elected county officials from a county policy required under the Oregon Workplace Fairness Act, the intent of which is to create a workplace free from harassment and intimidation.

Recall if you will that in 2021, a county personnel investigation found harassment accusations leveled against a commissioner “unsubstantiated,” partly because as an elected official, the commissioner could not be disciplined by our county administrator and partly because state law only forbade sexual harassment of county employees, not other kinds.

Often, when we express dismay at an elected official’s behavior, the realist will remind us that elected officials are accountable to voters, either through a recall or regular election. But that is a supremely unsatisfying answer to the harassed employee who is afraid to open their e-mail or encounter the elected official in the hallway or bathroom.

Sure, there’s always recourse through a lawsuit. But lawsuits against elected officials are covered by the county’s insurance policy, and in many ways, elected officials are immune from civil liability anyway.

Now there’s the issue of packing advisory committees with allies.

Why would elected officials resort to this, when advisory committees are limited to providing advice, experience and wisdom beyond that provided merely through the personal perspective of such officials?

Packing advisory boards can serve: (1) to advance the commissioners’ agenda, in part by manufacturing consent; (2) as a surveillance tool to wield against county departments; (3) as a reward to political allies; (4) to raise the profile of future political candidates; (5) as a chaos-generator to prevent a department from progressing through a work plan; (6) to punish existing or prospective committee members who cross the commissioners.

Since 2020, I’ve watched my former colleagues block the ill-favored from serving and instead tap allies for the county’s Board of Health, Planning Commission, Road Improvement Advisory Committee, Local Public Safety Coordinating Council, Budget Committee and, now, Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.

When county employees and volunteers feel unsafe or advisory committees are thrown into chaos, we all suffer. It might be a slower response to a downed tree blocking the road, mixed up communications on a safety issue, a costly lawsuit that raises our insurance expense or a long-range plan that never gets approved and funded. But it is real because county government involves local people serving local people.

Durable, fair solutions to hold elected officials accountable are hard to come by, but you may remember when then-Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle negotiated a settlement to longstanding and chronic complaints of harassment of staff, interns and lobbyists by legislators. The settlement required the Legislature establish an office to handle training and investigation and empowered a legislative committee to issue sanctions.

We can create our own version of this scheme by voter initiative, setting expectations and holding officials accountable to them. We can empower our county administrator to order investigations of credible accusations, and establish a personnel and advisory board standard for elected officials that includes rescinding salary and benefits, establishing no-contact rules and restriction of e-mail privileges for elected officials who are found to have harassed employees or peers.

A standard enacted by voters can and should also restrict county elected officials from appointing to advisory boards relatives or campaign donors. And that code should include a requirement that commissioners make their calendar publicly available and put in at least 40 hours per week actually on the job.

If that transparency raises objections as overly intrusive, I would encourage voters to make these positions volunteer and unpaid. We deserve to know who they meet with and how much they work.

It can be distasteful, even icky-feeling, to police the behavior of elected officials that we’ve entrusted to do the business of the public. But when elected officials violate ethical norms by harassing county staff and volunteers and promoting their friends, I believe we can and should take action to provide guardrails of appropriate behavior and penalties for crossing those guardrails.

Guest writer Casey Kulla is a farmer, father and former Yamhill County commissioner. He and his wife, Katie, farm on a river island in the Willamette River — Grand Island, near Dayton. In their free time, they explore the Coast Range. He left his county post to run for the non-partisan post of state labor commissioner in the 2022 election cycle. 



Good ideas Casey! Who can we get to work on it?

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