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Josephine County citizens' group aims to restructure local government

The Josephine County courthouse in Grants Pass. A citizens group is proposing changes to the county's charter for the May 2024 election.
Erik Neumann
The Josephine County courthouse in Grants Pass. A citizens group is proposing changes to the county's charter for the May 2024 election.

A nonpartisan group called Citizens for Responsible Government is currently gathering voter signatures for a petition to replace the Josephine County charter. They say that doing so will ensure better representation for all voters in the Southern Oregon county.

The goal is to get the initiative on the ballot in May 2024.

The proposed changes include increasing the number of county commissioners from three to five and electing them from four specific districts and one at-large position, rather than the current structure of all three commissioners being elected at-large. They group also wants to pay commissioners a smaller stipend rather than a salary and benefits, and hire a county manager to take over administrative duties and ensure more oversight of the commission.

"I think people in different areas of the county don't feel they have as much a voice," said Jane Slama, one of the co-petitioners on the initiative. "The hope, the desire is that we will have a better representation throughout the county of various voices in the county."

The group says they want commissioners to come from across the county.

"I looked at, where have we had our commissioners come from? For the past 20 years, only one has been from outside the greater Grants Pass area," said Dorothy Yetter, a member of Citizens for Responsible Government.

Other proposed changes include hiring the county legal counsel and county surveyor based on qualifications rather than being elected. The proposal also eliminates sections in the current charter that are not enforceable or that are already covered by the Oregon Constitution or state statute. In addition, it specifies that county commissioners can only serve for three consecutive terms.

One concern of the organizers is having enough candidates to run in each of the four newly-created districts, given the rural nature of parts of the county. Jim Gower is the chief petitioner on the initiative and head of the group. He described the issue as "kind of a conundrum."

"I think it will work itself out. Because the districts will be representative of the numbers of people they will all have, essentially, the same number of voters in them," he said.

This effort to alter the charter stemmed from a two-year commission that was formed to review Josephine County's charter, which concluded its work in the spring. The nine-member group made a variety of recommendations of ways to update the county charter which were submitted to the commissioners.

But Josephine County has a home-rule charter, so voters, not commissioners, have power over it.

Citizens for Responsible Government took some of the recommendations from the commission to form its new proposed charter.

"What it's all about is accountability back to the constituency. As a constituency, we've kind of neglected our duties, and we don't vet our elected officials maybe quite as strictly as we should," said Jean Ann Miles, a member of the group and a Cave Junction city councilor.

Both she and Yetter were on the county charter review commission.

Citizens for Responsible Government said they’ve received significant support from voters. If its proposal is approved by voters in May, it would take effect 30 days after the election.

There is also another, separate charter amendment effort underway in Josephine County. That one is politically Conservative and includes sections on parental rights and prohibiting income tax. It also proposes making local elections partisan, with May primaries and general elections in November, as with statewide elections.

The signature sheets of Citizens for Responsible Government are green, while the other group's are pink.

Jane Vaughan is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. Jane began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media.