(Update: Adding video, comments from John Heylin)
Chang says he believes colleagues 'slow-walked' discussion for months, to stall any petition effort
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – If Deschutes County voters are asked next year whether to expand the Board of Commissioners from three to five members, it won’t be the current board asking the question, although the idea could still make the ballot, if a citizen initiative effort succeeds.
John Heylin is a local business owner in Bend. This week, he plans to begin collecting signatures for a citizen initiative.
"This is not about population and growth in Deschutes County. This is about the structural fundamental flaws in the county government itself." Heylin said Tuesday.
Heylin said he is optimistic about gathering the 8,800 required signatures.
"It just doesn't seem like they have our best interests at heart," he said of the current board. " And so I feel like by having more people on the commission itself, you can have more diversity of thought and can actually have progress on some of these ideas."
Commissioners discussed the details of options, including the more complex “home rule charter” process, with Legal Counsel Dave Doyle at their meeting Monday afternoon, but in the end decided not to proceed – not on a formal vote, but a familiar 2-1 difference of opinion.
Commissioner Phil Chang has said for some time he believes the county has grown big enough that having a larger board would be more representative and effective.
But colleagues Tony DeBone and Patty Adair dismissed the notion of a county referral to the May 2024 ballot, saying they don’t think it’s necessary at this time.
When the three-member commission was first established in 1971, the population was just over 33,000. Today it's 200,000.
Adair said she’d “heard from several people who’d love for us to do this.” But she noted that Portland-area counties with two to three times Deschutes County’s population have five commissioners – “most of the counties that do have five have basically double our population.”
“I know some people are really ready for this to happen today,” she said, “but I’m not sure our population is there yet.”
Chang responded that one of his “favorite counties,” Hood River, has just one-fifth Deschutes’ population, and cited the benefits of their five-member board, elected by district, from “a better ratio of representation” to each commissioner’s ability to “be a little more focused” on their committee assignments.
A side-benefit he acknowledged as “very wonky inside baseball” is that with five commissioners, two can meet or talk about important issues without it being a quorum, with all the public meeting requirements that entails.
But that wasn’t enough for DeBone: “I’m not interested in proceeding at this time.”
“I’m honored to be serving all the citizens of Deschutes County as full-time commissioners,” he said. “I’m available to everyone and anyone. I do outreach, I get around the county all the time.”
DeBone also noted that commissioners just referred, and voters approved, moving the board from partisan to non-partisan commission seats, so “one process at a time is my thought here.”
“I don’t want to see more change,” he said. “The United States of America is going through a really challenging election process (for 2024). The less moving parts, the better.”
DeBone also suggested that when the city of Redmond “has a little bit more true population” and “there are two cities that are more power centers, and Deschutes County crosses 250,000, then there’s a point to have a discussion. But not at this point in time.”
Chang, disappointed by his colleagues (and not for the first -- or presumably last time), said, “I wish we’d have had these discussions four months ago,” giving “people who are going to go out and gather signatures more time to do their work.”
Chang later told NewsChannel 21 that Heylin, owner of the Unofficial Logging Company, had approached commissioners a few months ago to consider sending the board expansion proposal to voters, and now intends to file a committee and start gathering signatures.
Chang said Heylin had been waiting for four months for commissioners to discuss and decide whether to send a measure to voters. But county Clerk Steve Dennison said that would require some 8,800 voter signatures by the filing deadline.
Chang said, “Honestly, I feel like my fellow commissioners deliberately slow-walked the discussion we had today, to stall signature gatherers from having enough time to get it on the May 2024 ballot.”