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City right to back off

Bakerr City Herald Editorial Board

Baker City officials were acting responsibly when they tried to offer relief to a couple of private property owners who have suffered due to their proximity to the popular banks of the Powder River.

The complaints from Cathy and Tom Tressler, who live next to the river, and the Baker Elks Lodge, which owns the adjacent Wade Williams Park, are legitimate. These include reports of people parking illegally, littering, and being loud and obnoxious while hanging around the river.


Hoping for fast fire recovery


While huge swathes of the sagebrush steppe in Oregon’s southeastern corner were being blackened this summer by lightning-sparked fires, Baker County was tranquil.

Until Sunday.

A bolt ignited a blaze about 16 miles southeast of Baker City. The Sardine fire spread across about 6,100 acres, according to BLM’s most recent estimate (acreages have varied considerably).

In one sense, the landowners whose property was burned fared better than some of their counterparts did in Harney and Malheur counties.

The Sardine fire, unlike the blazes in those counties, didn’t kill any cattle or horses.

This fortunate result isn’t due purely to luck, either. Mike Widman, who with his wife, Coral, owns some of the rangeland that burned, talked about how local residents and fire crews from multiple agencies strived to protect livestock.

But in another respect, Baker County ranchers are confronted with the same challenges facing others in the beef business.

At least half a dozen local ranchers will have to find another source of feed for cattle that were supposed to graze this fall in the area scorched on Sunday.

That means an extra expense.

And hassle.

Besides private land, the fire burned sections of public land that might be off-limits to livestock for two years to allow the scars to heal.

The fire will affect wildlife, too, possibly including sage grouse, a species for which federal protection has been proposed.

We’re confident that the BLM, which manages the public land in the area, will act quickly to minimize the fire’s damage. The agency might, for example, need to spread seeds of native grasses and other plants to prevent cheatgrass and other invasive species from dominating the post-fire landscape.

Widman said he will consider doing the same thing on his property.

Ideally, the late summer and fall will bring periods of gentle rain that encourages grass to sprout, rather than downpours that turn the denuded slopes into mudslides.

Ultimately the land will recover, and continue to provide multiple, and beneficial, uses.


Time to ponder park plan


We agree with the Baker City Council’s decision Tuesday to wait until it has some specific proposals before choosing whether to return a generous gift.

But we also understand Councilors Roger Coles’ and Beverly Calder’s concerns about the potential expense to the city of keeping the residential property that Anthony Silvers, who died last year, bequeathed.

That property is on Clifford Street, just east of the Powder River between Valley and Washington avenues. There are two homes on the property.

As a condition of the gift, Silvers required the city, within five years, to use the property “for public use and benefit” of the city. Otherwise, the property reverts to Silvers’ sister, Ernestine Hill.

A reasonable request, to be sure. But complying with it might prove difficult, and expensive.

The highest use for the property is likely as a park.

But to build one the city probably would have to tear down the two houses, those not being typical features of a public park.

Then, too, a handful of residents in that neighborhood told the City Council Tuesday that they fear the addition of a park would exacerbate the problems — including alleged drug use and loud music — that emanate from the city’s year-old Central Park on the opposite bank of the river.

That’s a legitimate concern.

But we think Calder was on to something when she said Tuesday that over time Central Park is apt to attract more families. The absence of amenities — no playground equipment, for instance — makes the park a tough sell for parents with kids.

Once the city addresses that issue — and secures some off-street parking — the idea of building a bridge to the Silvers property and using it as sort of a Central Park annex might be more palatable to neighbors.

How the city would pay for all this, of course, is an open question. The city has no surplus dollars for park improvements.

But we recall that the city spent $200,000 for the property that became Central Park. At least the Silvers property was free.

And with Silvers’ deadline more than four years away, there’s ample time for city officials to figure out whether they can make good use of this gift.


Resort St. plan still too costly


Baker City officials have significantly trimmed the cost to local taxpayers for burying utility lines on a several-block section of Resort Street downtown that’s scheduled to be rebuilt next year.

But the prospective bill is still too expensive.

Much too expensive.

In April we urged the city to drop the idea.

Our opinion hasn’t changed.

The proposal is attractive, to be sure.

After all, the ground’s going to be dug up when Resort is rebuilt between Auburn and Campbell. That’s the ideal time to bury the power, phone and cable TV lines.

But even though the city’s projected share of the $1.1 million job is now about $340,000, roughly half the estimate from April, even the lower figure isn’t justified.

The city can spend the money on other projects that have a greater benefit to a larger number of city residents.

In April we cited one obvious example: starting to reverse the decade-long downward trend in the condition of city streets.

There was another worthwhile option on the agenda for the City Council meeting Tuesday night, an agenda that also included the Resort Street plan.

Councilors are considering doling out grant dollars for “neighborhood enhancements.” The city hasn’t defined the term, but it could include such things as sprucing up the park strip between the street and sidewalk, cleaning dilapidated properties or installing security lighting.

The city could get a lot of mileage, so to speak, from $340,000 by spreading those dollars in every neighborhood rather than on a section of one street.


A tough new job


We hadn’t, at this writing, had a chance to interview Kevin Martin, who replaces Monica Schwalbach as head of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

We’re eager to hear his answer to one question in particular: “Do you know what you’re getting into?”

Martin faces the difficult task of trying to balance an edict from Washington, D.C., to restrict motor vehicle use on national forests, with widespread opposition among local residents to banning vehicles from any more roads on the Wallowa-Whitman.

Although Martin is familiar with the region — he’s been supervisor of the neighboring Umatilla National Forest for eight years — his experience with travel management there was quite different. The Umatilla has limited motor vehicle travel to designated roads and trails since the early 1990s, so the forest didn’t have to make major changes to comply with the national Travel Management Rule. The Wallowa-Whitman, by contrast, is an “open” forest — meaning motor vehicles are allowed in most places unless specifically prohibited (as in wilderness areas).

Nonetheless, we believe a reasonable (though still controversial) compromise can be forged.

In particular, we recommend Martin look closely at the proposal that combines ideas from elected officials in Baker, Union and Wallowa counties. It would close less than half as many roads as were included in Schwalbach’s vastly unpopular plan.


Right to be cautious


It looks as though voters in the Baker School District will decide whether to recall two of the five school board members: chair Lynne Burroughs and Mark Henderson.

The recall ballots won’t arrive in mailboxes as early as proponents had hoped, though.

County Clerk Tami Green announced Tuesday that recall organizers had failed to gather enough signatures to refer the matter to voters.

Barely.

Proponents need to gather a minimum of 913 signatures from people registered to vote in school district elections to force a recall election. That threshold applies to Burroughs and Henderson individually — the organizers need to collect at least that many signatures on separate petitions for each board member.

Green certified 910 signatures on the petition to recall Burroughs, and 900 signatures on the Henderson petition.

We understand why recall backers Kerry McQuisten and Suzan Jones are upset with Green’s decision to invalidate some signatures and petition sheets.

They contend that certain dates on petition sheets which Green concluded had been changed — which results in all signatures on those sheets being dismissed — were actually the result of ink spilling or a shaky writing hand.

That sounds plausible.

Yet Green has an obligation to ensure that, almost literally, every “t” is crossed and every “i” is dotted in a matter as serious as the possible recall of an elected official.

Ultimately, we believe the only effect of Green’s decision is that recall organizers will have to replicate some of their work.

Which they say they will do, and soon.

Which means the democratic process has been delayed in this case, but in the end it won’t be thwarted, and we expect voters will have their say.


Candidates beware


There has been as yet scarce interest among Baker City residents in four openings on the seven-member City Council.

As of today, only one person — former councilor Terry Schumacher — has filed. A second, Mike Downing, is collecting signatures. And City Recorder Becky Fitzpatrick said she has given informational packets to two other people.

This apparent apathy doesn’t shock us. The deadline to file as a candidate is 4 p.m. on Aug. 27, and it’s common to have a flurry of late filings. Still and all, that’s less than three weeks away. And although the paperwork isn’t onerous, candidates must gather signatures from at least 40 people who are registered to vote in city elections. For information, go to www.bakercity.com, or call Fitzpatrick at 541-524-2033.

We think this is a particularly compelling time for residents to represent their neighbors and help to run the city. Rising costs for PERS could force the city to make difficult decisions in future years’ budgets. That’s the kind of challenge that we hope will prove irresistible to residents willing to devote their time, and abilities, to public service. It would be a pity if someone missed out on that chance just because he or she missed a deadline.


Starting toward a PERS fix?


Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler is wading into the murky swamp of the state’s Public Employees Retirement System.

For taking the risk that he’ll step into a patch of political quicksand, Wheeler deserves credit.

As a Democrat in a state that elects Republicans to statewide offices about once a generation, Wheeler would be on perfectly stable ground by simply going about his duties and leaving PERS to the Legislature.

We don’t mean to imply, though, that Wheeler has discovered a PERS panacea.

In a recent letter to the PERS board of directors, Wheeler suggested a few modest changes that might at least curb the retirement system’s voracious appetite for public dollars that otherwise could keep police officers, firefighters and teachers, among other local, county and state employees, on the job.

Incremental changes might be the best we can hope for.

The truly insidious aspect of PERS is that some of its more expensive benefits — for instance, guaranteeing annual returns of 8 percent on pension accounts for PERS members hired before 1996 — were negotiated as parts of legally binding contracts.

The Legislature can’t simply say, “sorry, we changed our mind.” 

But as Wheeler noted in his letter, the Legislature could trim annual cost-of-living adjustments and do away with an overly generous benefit for retirees who move to another state.

With cities, counties and school districts facing another major increase in their PERS bills next July, Wheeler’s colleagues in Salem are obligated to support his effort to save as much money as possible.


Chicken chain's flap


Remember that innocent era when Chick-fil-A, the purveyor of rapidly delivered poultry, was best known for its clever TV commercials featuring beleaguered cows urging Americans to boost their consumption of chicken?

Today the fast food chain is a symbol in the nation’s debate over same-sex marriage.

Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy precipitated this by publicly denouncing same-sex marriage.

We disagree with Cathy, but of course he is entitled to express his opinion in whatever forum he chooses.

And the people who are angry about Cathy’s comments are equally free to picket his restaurants or urge boycotts of the chicken chain.

So far, a fine example of how the First Amendment is supposed to work.

The troubling part of the Chick-fil-A episode happened, perhaps not surprisingly, when some politicians butted in.

The mayors of Boston, Chicago and San Francisco say Chick-fil-A isn’t welcome in their cities. 

Although Mayors Tom Menino (Boston), Rahm Emanuel (Chicago) and Edwin Lee (San Francisco) clarified that they won’t marshal city resources to block Chick-fil-A franchises, we still think the trio went too far.

The First Amendment pretty clearly stands in the way of any city trying to legally restrict businesses from opening based on the political views of their owners. These three mayors should have stuck to criticizing Cathy’s words, rather than implying, however subtly, that his restaurants would be treated differently at City Hall than anyone else’s.


Summer of giving


The economy, according to the cold, hard statistics assembled by analysts, remains in the doldrums.

But there are other measurements, ones which warm the heart.

The generosity of Northeastern Oregon residents is as lively as ever.

Perhaps even more so.

Consider what has happened, or soon will happen, around here this summer.

Last weekend the local American Cancer Society Relay for Life, an event which is the product of hundreds of volunteers, raised more than $60,000 for cancer research.

Over the past eight years these annual relays have brought in more than $500,000.

This Saturday the East-West Shrine All-Star Football Game at Baker Bulldog Memorial Stadium will add more than $100,000 to the coffers of the Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Portland.

Last year’s game raised $130,000.

But the extraordinary part of this story isn’t even those two traditional events.

We’re gratified too by how quickly the region has responded to the plight of Jason and Stacy Bingham, the Baker Valley couple who have already had one of their five children, daughter Sierra, undergo a heart transplant. Now Sierra’s younger sister, Lindsey, is awaiting a heart transplant. And the Binghams’ three other children have been diagnosed with heart problems that could also require life-saving surgery.

Even with insurance, which the Binghams have, the bills could easily surpass the million-dollar threshold.

And although the Binghams have never asked for help, a series of fundraisers in July, including auctions at the Haines Stampede Rodeo and the Baker City Bull and Bronc events, raised tens of thousands of dollars.

“I just cannot believe the generosity of people,” said Jeanette Thompson, who is helping to organize a fundraising auction for the Binghams on Aug. 18 at 6 p.m. at the North Powder School.

Another Baker County girl, 9-year-old Tyalinn Harrison of Huntington, needs surgery to repair a hole in her heart. Organizers of a benefit auction and dinner set for Aug. 9 hope to raise $5,000 to help the Harrison family.

If the event — it starts at 5 p.m. at the Baker City Seventh-Day Adventist Church — brings in more than $5,000, the organizers will donate the surplus dollars to the Binghams.

The bottom line is that even when dollars are precious, local residents have responded to the extraordinary difficulties of their neighbors with generosity that’s equally extraordinary.


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