Baker County voters have an interesting decision to make over the next few weeks as they choose the chairman of the three-member County Board of Commissioners (potentially, anyway — if none of the three candidates receives more than half the votes cast in the May 15 primary, the top two advance to the November election).
It’s interesting not only because three people are seeking the seat — incumbent Bill Harvey, Bruce Nichols (also an incumbent, but for one of the two part-time commissioner seats), and Baker City Mayor Mike Downing.
Downing is a qualified candidate, with his experience as a city councilor and as Justice of the Peace pro-tem. He also has an admirable history of public service as a volunteer firefighter.
But we believe this is a case in which the two incumbents have an advantage.
And here’s where this race is so unusual.
Although voters can choose only one candidate, the reality is that by re-electing Harvey they can maintain the current three-member Board of Commissioners for at least the next two years (the other incumbent, Mark Bennett, is running unopposed).
We think that’s the best option for Baker County — to keep the current team together, as it were.
The county’s financial position is one that many Oregon counties would likely envy. Challenges loom, to be sure — escalating PERS payments, for instance — but we’re confident that the management in place, both commissioners and department heads, is capable of dealing with the difficulties.
The commissioners themselves have had a few high-profile disagreements over the past year — in particular between Harvey and Nichols. But we believe the occasional dispute is healthy — more so, anyway, than a group that simply agrees on everything. That sort of unanimity can lead to complacency, and discourage officials from challenging the accepted wisdom and finding creative solutions.
One example of discord revolved around commissioners’ concerns about the Tri-County Cooperative Weed Management Area, the agency that works to control noxious weeds in Baker, Union and Wallowa counties. All three commissioners agreed that there were problems with Tri-County, including its lack of transparency in budgeting and the lack of a full-time staff person based in Baker County.
Harvey advocated for Baker County to drop out of the cooperative, a move that both Bennett and Nichols later opposed.
Nichols, to his credit, delved deeply into the matter and wisely solicited the opinions of Baker County’s Weed Board, whose members urged him to keep the county in the partnership even as commissioners pushed for reforms.
Harvey chastised Nichols for talking with the Weed Board members. We disagreed with Harvey in this space in January.
But ultimately we’re interested in results. And we believe that the commissioners’ debate over Tri-County yielded positive results, notably Tri-County’s willingness to try to address Baker County’s concerns in a new Memorandum of Understanding that is being negotiated.
We feel similarly about another dispute among commissioners, this one over Harvey’s secret negotiations with Ash Grove Cement to have the county-owned abandoned lime plant near Huntington cleaned up.
We disagreed with Harvey’s decision to talk with Ash Grove officials without alerting Bennett and Nichols. But ultimately the deal couldn’t be made with their endorsement, and both recognized that the project benefits the county and its citizens.
The bottom line is that the commissioners, despite their disagreements, have shown the ability to compromise and to make sound decisions.
In an interview this week, Nichols told us he will continue to challenge Harvey when he has questions, and that he doesn’t mind being challenged himself in a constructive debate. We like Nichols’ approach. His ability to analyze issues is one reason we endorsed him when he ran for his current position in 2016, and why we hope, if he doesn’t win the commission chairman’s seat, he will seek another four-year term as commissioner when his current term expires at the end of 2020.
Re-electing Harvey also would allow voters to decide who represents them. If Nichols wins, he and Bennett would appoint a commissioner to fill Nichols’ seat in 2019.
Nichols also told us he believes the commissioners agree with each other “about 90 percent of the time.” This doesn’t surprise us. Nichols and Harvey, in their written responses to the Herald’s questionnaire (printed on Page 5A today), cite similar economic priorities.
Again, the results tell us that the recent debates among commissioners, and their differing personalities and styles, have not been detrimental to the county’s interests.
We didn’t endorse Harvey when he ran in 2014 against Fred Warner Jr., in part because we felt that Warner, the incumbent, had done a credible job. The situation is similar today. Harvey has proved to be a dedicated, and generally effective, commissioner. We appreciate that he routinely attends City Council meetings across the county, in Haines, Richland, Halfway, Sumpter and Huntington.
Harvey’s consistent advocacy for the importance of natural resources to the county’s economy — and his belief that laws governing the half of the county that is managed by the federal government tend to stifle the economic potential of those lands — struck a chord with a significant number of county residents when he was elected in 2014, and that stance still resonates today.
In a recent interview Harvey told us he’s “very passionate about what I do. Because I defend people’s rights, and that’s important.”
We appreciate passion. But we also hope Harvey has learned that as an elected official, even when he has ideas that are good for the county — the lime plant project, for instance — he needs to discuss them with his two colleagues rather than present them as done deals and, as he did with the lime plant, bristle when the other commissioners ask questions.
If voters re-elect Harvey we don’t doubt the commissioners will have more verbal tussles. But when these spirited debates among elected officials, who don’t always agree but who all sincerely want the best for county residents, result in beneficial results, we don’t think voters should be concerned about an occasional raised voice or exasperated expression at the Courthouse.
From the Baker City Herald editorial board. The board consists of editor Jayson Jacoby and reporter Chris Collins.