One month into his term, Coos County Commissioner Andy Jackson died. Now what?

By Mary Geddry of Coquille, Oregon. Mary describes herself as "a wind energy developer and progressive South Coast blogger." Read more at

There is a lot at stake in Coos County, Oregon. The county has been through two recall elections in the past two years, one successfully recalling the assessor. Sixty percent of the road department was laid off unexpectedly New Year’s Eve, 2008 and there are now six hundred miles of failing roadways, sharp budget cuts expected in the new fiscal year and a 15% unemployment rate.

Jordan Cove, LLC, a Canadian owned energy developer is seeking to permit a billion-dollar LNG import facility on the north spit of Coos Bay. The terminal and an accompanying 36” pipeline is being vigorously opposed by local activists.

Oregon Resources, an Australian-owned strip mining company, is seeking permits to mine chromite and other minerals on a 24/7 schedule raising fears amongst nearby residents about noise and dust pollution and of hexavalent chromium contamination to ground water and nearby feeder streams and wetlands

Last November, hoping to bring new leadership to address these issues voters worked hard to enact sweeping changes on the county commission -- changes that began in 2008 when incumbent John Griffith lost his seat to challenger, Bob Main. The 2010 race saw Larry Van Elsberg, a former county road master, narrowly miss replacing three term incumbent Nikki Whitty despite being outspent three to one during the campaign.

In 2009, a recall election failed to remove first-term commissioner Kevin Stufflebean, but then Sheriff Andy Jackson entered the race and clobbered him, taking 64% of the vote. Finally, the electorate had confidence that Whitty, widely seen to favor the narrow agendas of the business community, referred to locally as the good old boy network, had been neutralized.

Jackson served three terms as sheriff and was hugely popular and perceived as fair, honest and incorruptible. Though a Republican, Jackson was embraced by all but the business community who feared, despite a lack of evidence, that he might not be pro-development. But one month after taking office, Jackson died of a heart attack.

The sudden vacancy means that Whitty and Main, not known to agree on much must agree on and appoint a replacement. Less than a week after Jackson died, they requested interested parties to submit applications by 5 p.m., February 10. To help with the selection and give the appearance of public input the commissioners formed a seven-member panel. The panel’s job would be to cull through the applicants and make a few recommendations from which the commissioners should then interview to find one they can agree upon.

Whitty chose Fred Messerle, Terence O’Conner, City Manager, Coquille, and Steve Kridelbaugh, a retired college administrator. Main picked Ted Simon, someone with international business ties, Don Peabody, an investment banker and Lanny Boston formerly with the Bandon Fire Department. The pair mutually agreed on Hank Hickox, vice president and general manager of the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort for the seventh member.

No one on the selection committee attends regular board of commission meetings and public suggestions to include a labor representative on the panel were declined by both commissioners. A recent letter to the editor of the local paper complained that no women are on the committee.

Thirty-three applicants turned in their resumes including two that had run in the primary and or general election, Van Elsberg and Mary Loiselle who lost in the primary. Randall Sanne, a highly respected county employee well known to have strong understanding of government budgets and two former municipal mayors, a practicing lawyer and a former commissioner, Gordon Ross, applied.

Committee members were given a packet with all the resumes to review over the weekend. Yesterday, before announcing five top candidates at a special meeting, one committee member quipped, “…this is a chance to appoint someone the voters wouldn’t elect”.

The list, sadly, was predominantly populated by much of the old guard the electorate had hoped to replace. The finalists, who will be subjected to a twenty question interview process on Wednesday are Lance Benton a career Coast Guard officer, Caddy McKeown, Timm Slater of the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, John Sweet of Sause Brothers Ocean Towing and one bright spot, Cam Parry a professional grant writer.

Parry, whom I know slightly, would bring some badly needed critical thinking skills to the commission and is a well known advocate of wetlands restoration and the development of small and sustainable business. Politically savvy, he may well be able to balance the sometimes contentious debate between jobs and environmental concerns.

If all of this seems like isolated regional problems consider that just since 2003, when I moved to Coos County, more than $300 million in state and federal tax dollars has flowed through the county via projects meant to stimulate the economy. These include a $51 million dollar county owned 12” gas pipeline. Paid for half by lottery funds and half by a local bond measure sold to the voters and promoted by Whitty with a promise of 2,900 jobs. The pipeline construction caused enormous environmental damage, failed to produce the jobs, was never intended to be economically viable and in 2007 utilities managing the line were exempted from ad valorem tax by a special legislative bill unique to the county.

Southwestern Oregon Regional Airport was built with a price tag of $32 million (some argue it was $50 million) and serves three flights a day. The airport is widely regarded as an executive jet parking lot for the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort and the resort is presently lobbying the airport board to extend the runway out into the bay to allow larger jets.

Most recently, Coos County received $58 million in ARRA funds between 2008 and 2010. At 27,000 households that is more than $2,100 per household yet none of this money sticks to the ribs of the average worker. Of the ARRA funds, $22 million went to activities related to the International Port of Coos Bay despite two independent studies that conclude the port will never be competitive with Tacoma or Portland.

A new commissioner may be appointed as early as Wednesday, February 16. The choice can affect all of Oregon. Anxious voters are eyeing the process warily.

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    Thanks for the update from the South Coast, Mary. Never a dull day, huh?

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    With an international port, there is a hell of lot happening down here, all the time. Yes, never dull.

    The process chosen to select a commissioner to replace the late Andy Jackson has received some fair criticism and raises some questions. Forming a selection committee gave a false and pointless impression of impartiality on the part of the remaining commissioners. Pointless, because if the pair of commissioners could not agree on someone from the first round of picks, the committee would simply go back to the original list and pick more. Therefore, why didn't Main and Whitty just each pick three or four from the list they wanted to interview and not bother with the selection committee at all?

    Thankfully, Cam Parry, was chosen to be the third member of the Coos County commission

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    This would be a good time for Coos County to rethink how it handles vacancies.

    Anticipating exactly this problem, the Multnomah County Commission, a few years ago, moved to a system of pre-designated alternates.

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    How do you determine a pre-designated alternate?

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    I testified in opposition to the gas pipeline before a hearings officer the county hired because the Board of Commissioners had extensive conflicts of interests in their handling of the NW Natural Gas project. From the beginning the project was a waste of money. The location of the line, rather than following a highway, was lain through a mountainous rural area, where residents were restricted from getting to their homes in a reasonable manner for months. Serious damage was done to agricultural and forest lands, not to mention the Coquille River Canyon.

    Then the action by former Governor Kulongoski to spend huge economic development resources on the SW OR Regional Airport to accommodate the rich who fly in to golf at Bandon Dunes was unforgivable. A small percentage of Coos County residents have benefitted from that $52 million investment.

    Unlike Jackson County, Coos did continue a viable library system that is open reasonable hours to serve the public, and it has staffed the libraries with locals. Jackson turned its libraries over to be run by private enterprise from an eastern state, and it is almost impossible to know what days and hours the libraries are open.

    I suppose county governments work some places in Oregon, but looking at the state from Jackson County I question if more than six of the 32 work well for their residents.

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