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Voters may see another proposed update to Josephine County charter in November

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.

Voters rejected a change to Josephine County’s charter in May. Another proposed update to their local governing laws could be voted on in November.

Josephine County resident Jonathan Knapp is trying to collect over 4,000 signatures to put a change to his county’s charter on the ballot.

A previous effort, which Knapp opposed, failed in May to update the county’s guiding document. That measure would have increased the number of commissioners while reducing their pay, created newly-designed districts for candidates and created a new county manager position. The proposal also sought to require all elected offices to be nonpartisan.

Knapp’s proposal includes a laundry list of changes with a focus on local control.

One thing his measure would do is make elected positions partisan.

“We're asking that any candidate running for office indicate what party they are a member of as a matter of transparency,” said Knapp.

Although the county has historically leaned right, non-affiliated voters are the largest voting bloc. Under Oregon law, making offices partisan would exclude those voters from participating in primary elections.

The new charter would require commissioner candidates to have lived in the county for at least two years and ban officials from holding more than one elected office. It would also prohibit a county sales tax, ranked-choice voting and vaccine requirements for employment or education.

“We added a section on ‘body autonomy’ which basically gives parents the rights over their children and citizens of Josephine County the right to refuse vaccination,” said Knapp.

Josephine is one of nine “home rule” counties in the state, which allows voters to change their government’s charters. Since 1981, Josephine County has amended its charter 16 times.

Knapp said his measure would also change Josephine County’s status from “an agency of the state” to a “body politic.” He said that could give the county more local determination over policies passed in Salem. He explained that designation would have allowed the county to not comply with state Measure 110 which decriminalized hard drugs (that measure was later repealed).

However, Chad Jacobs, a professor of local government law at Lewis and Clark Law School, said the county would still be required to follow statewide measures like Measure 110.

“The way that this local home rule authority has been interpreted by the courts is that the state can still preempt the counties from doing certain things, even if there's language in their charter that says otherwise,” said Jacobs.

Knapp said he was a close observer of Josephine County’s recent commission which formed to review their charter and had decided against putting his measure on the May primary ballot so as not to confuse voters with a competing proposal. He said that he is a member of the Republican Party but that no group was behind the proposed charter update.

Justin Higginbottom is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. He's worked in print and radio journalism in Utah as well as abroad with stints in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. He spent a year reporting on the Myanmar civil war and has contributed to NPR, CNBC and Deutsche Welle (Germany’s public media organization).