Classes help new commissioners learn the ropes

January 12, 2009

CORVALLIS, Ore. – An ex-landscaping consultant, a computer technician and a former owner of a septic tank servicing company are some of the approximately 20 new county commissioners who are packing their bags for an educational boot camp that kicks off this month.

In what is known as County College, they'll learn everything from how to run a public meeting to how to maintain county roads cost-effectively during classes that span 13 days between January and September.

The Oregon State University Extension Service and the Association of Oregon Counties (AOC) are sponsoring the voluntary classes, which will be held around Oregon and have taken place every year since the program's inception in 2006.

They started it as a way to educate newly elected county officials who had little, if any, political experience. So far, 40 individuals representing 25 of Oregon's 36 counties have completed the training, said Deborah Maddy, the associate director of the Extension Service.

This year's classes are spread across the following dates: Jan. 15-17 at OSU; Feb. 19-21 in Salem; April 17-18 at a still undecided place in Benton County; May 15-16 and June 19-20 at locations yet to be determined; and Sept. 17 at OSU's Food Innovation Center in Portland. The classes are taught by employees of Extension and the AOC as well as experts from county and state governments.

Each session will focus on different topics. In the first one, participants will learn about the state's changing demographics; the history of Oregon's county government system; the legislative process; and how counties interact with other governmental entities. Additionally, they'll tour OSU's campus while they learn how some of its buildings were financed and built. The aim is to give them ideas about how public infrastructure in their counties might be funded.

Giving participants ideas to take back to their counties and possibly implement is one of the goals of the training, said Laura Cleland, the coordinator of County College and the communications manager for the AOC.

For example, participants will have the option to visit a courtroom in Salem and watch how a judge conducts what is called "drug court," which allows drug offenders to forgo time behind bars if they complete requirements such as getting a job and passing random urinalyses. They'll also learn about topics like probation and juvenile justice and will visit a jail to hear about issues it faces and how it handles them.

The training also aims to increase officials' awareness of certain issues so that they'll be better informed when making decisions about funding for programs related to those areas, Cleland said. For example, they'll learn about the many services provided by the public health system such as vaccinations and inspections of restaurants, wells and swimming pools.

County College is not just for newcomers. Hood River County Commissioner Barbara Briggs signed up for last year's training after having been in office for a year and having held positions on a county budget committee and a school district board. She said she came away with a network of contacts and new knowledge about issues such as the threat that invasive species pose to Oregon's environment.

And the training isn't only for commissioners; it's also for county staff in key positions. This year's class will include an economic development director and Pat Robertson Anderson, the human resources manager for Yamhill County.

Jessica Bates was only a few months into her job as the economic development director for Gilliam County when she signed up for last year's training. Prior to that, she did marketing for a beef company.

"It wasn't until I sat in the classes that I really understood the full scope of the services the county provides," Bates said. "One of the most valuable parts was getting to know commissioners. I now have connections around the state with people who are in positions to give me information. Networking opportunities have just popped up all over the place. I just can't imagine a new commissioner starting a job without having the knowledge that I gained at County College."

Twenty-four new county commissioners took office this month; at least 16 of them have signed up for County College so far. At least two incumbents have also enrolled.

One of the new commissioners enrolled in County College is Clackamas County's Jim Bernard.

"I signed up for it immediately because I want to be a great county commissioner," said Bernard, a former mayor of Milwaukie and the owner of an auto repair shop. "I can't think of a better way to do that than to participate in an educational program that will make me a bigger asset to the citizens."

He'll join other county commissioners who were sworn in this month, including Lane County's Rob Handy, a former landscaping consultant and contractor, and Klamath County's Cheryl Hukill, who used to own a septic tank cleaning and repair business.

Another one of their classmates will be Mike Smith, who was elected as a commissioner of Sherman County in November after being a councilman for the small town of Moro. As a computer technician with no county government experience, Smith is eager to learn all he can.

"County College will allow me to hit the ground running instead of facing a very steep learning curve all on my own," he said. "This will prepare me to better serve the residents of my county."

Other commissioners who have registered for this year's training are: Bob Austin, Clackamas County; Sandi Cassanelli, Josephine County; Ken Fahlgren, Crook County; Earl Fisher, Columbia County; Wayne Fording, Jefferson County; Bob Main, Coos County; Charlotte Lehan, Clackamas County; John Raichl, Clatsop County; Leann Rea, Morrow County; George Rhodes, Curry County; Patricia Roberts, Clatsop County; Susan Roberts, Wallowa County; Will Tucker, Linn County; and Bill Waddle, Curry County.

Agendas for the courses will be posted on the AOC's Web site as the dates approach for the classes.

Author: Tiffany Woods
Source: Deborah Maddy, Laura Cleland