© 2022 Tootie Smith for Oregon. All Rights Reserved.

Upholding the Social Contract

There are certain expectations that come from living in a free society. The most important is that, as long as you work hard, obey the law and don’t hurt anyone else, you’re generally free to go about your business peacefully.

That is what is often referred to as the social contract. In exchange for taking care of your business, you are essentially left alone. The taxes that you pay go towards government services that you and your neighbors will use on a regular basis.

What we’ve witnessed, as time goes on, has been a one-way violation of the terms of the longstanding agreement that is the social contract.

Many responsible taxpaying citizens have suddenly found the government and its agencies to be interfering in their affairs for no good reason. Instead of working for them, they feel more and more like those agencies are praying on them. Those agencies become less responsive while demanding additional taxpayer dollars. People start to feel like they’re serving the government, instead of the other way around.

The social contract is one of those things that binds of all, whether we’re aware of it or not. It’s an inherent understanding that we all carry deep down inside. But we also know when it isn’t working as it’s intended.

It’s a violation of the social contract when well-connected elites seem to live by a different standard than the rest of us do. If the rules only apply to some of the people some of the time, that means that the contract is not being honored.

There are dire long-term consequences of the continued breaching of the social contract. Business owners who are constantly victimized by vandalism and theft, only to see those crimes go unprosecuted, will no longer wish to uphold their end of the deal. They will relocate their businesses, and this is something we’re already seeing in areas like Portland.

Citizens who feel that their taxpayer dollars are being squandered on things they never asked for will vote against further increases. They’ll also start demanding accountability from their elected representatives who have failed to deliver.

Those were the kinds of circumstances that inspired me to run for chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners in 2020. As a longtime resident, I was concerned that the county’s budget was becoming bloated. Instead of county services being improved, I saw consultants getting paid exorbitant amounts of money and wondering what benefit we were getting out of it. I didn’t feel that the county was working for the benefit of the people who were paying its bills.

It’s important to me that the people of Clackamas County feel that our organization is holding up its end of the social contract. I’ve made every effort to emphasize and prioritize the services that are most essential to county residents. And I will continue to take this approach for as long as they allow me to serve as the chair of the county board of commissioners.  

Are We Being Ruled or Governed?

One of the main debates of our time is one that is nothing new. Society has always seemed to be split between people subscribing to two competing political philosophies—some want to be governed and some want others to rule over them and everyone else.

It’s often easy to tell the differences between being ruled and being governed.

When you’re being governed, there’s a rule of law that applies equally to everybody, regardless of status, class, family, who you know or who you are. Those laws are decided through deliberate processes that are open to scrutiny and input from the public. The decisions are made by representatives elected by citizens. Those representatives are regularly held accountable through elections and can be removed and replaced if they fail to represent the peoples’ interests.

When you’re being ruled, mandates are issued without regard to public process. The people issuing the edicts were never voted into power by anybody and were appointed to their positions. It’s impossible to determine how those mandates were developed and no immediate process to challenge them exists. Exemptions seem to be made for certain groups of people and not others. Certain select groups of people appear to always benefit from these decisions, and they’re often the same entities that supported those officials and enabled them to attain their positions of power.

Any citizens who dare question their authority are singled out, treated poorly, made examples of and subject to retaliation.

When you’re being governed, agencies exist for the purpose of providing services to you. Policies governing those agencies are directed with the consideration of input from citizens. Taxes are collected to fund those services and pay employees or contractors to provide them. Citizens are able to contact those agencies and get a response. There are repercussions for managers and personnel if the public is treated poorly.

When you’re being ruled, you are treated as if you exist to serve the government and not the other way around. Rulers think of budgets in terms of what agencies need. If they feel it’s not enough, taxes or fees are raised to achieve the desired results and amounts.

When you’re being governed, agencies’ resources are based on budgets whose amounts are set by citizens and their desired level of taxation.

When you’re being ruled, you are told what you can and cannot do. Your conduct is limited, and you must ask permission to do anything.

When you are being governed, you are assumed to be free. The government is limited to what is necessary to provide the shared services that you and your fellow citizens have agreed upon.

In just under a year, we’re going to be facing another election. When considering which candidates to support, we should ask which of these two philosophies they follow. Candidates who are currently in office who feel we should be ruled need to be removed immediately and replaced with those who feel that we should be governed.

Customer Service as a Top Priority

At the end of the day, the purpose of every public organization should be to improve the quality of life for the citizens it serves. But far too often, it seems that the politicians and bureaucrats in government agencies prioritize pet projects over their residents’ needs.

Throughout my careers in both the public and private sector, I’ve placed an emphasis on customer service. It’s the same approach I intend to take as the next chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners.

Customer service was critical back when I was owning and operating businesses. My husband and I ran a historic bed and breakfast hospitality site in Molalla. We always made sure that our customers received the experience that they expected and were happy with the service we provided them.

In the private sector, failure to meet customers’ expectations usually means having to close your doors. If you raise your prices too high, customers will take their business elsewhere. If you aren’t responsive to what your customers want, you won’t have any more of them.

Somehow, people in the public sector often have a completely different attitude. They seem to forget that they are there to serve the public, and not the other way around.

As a longtime resident of Clackamas County, I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with the level and quality of service being provided by those who are supposed to be leading us. It’s one of the biggest reasons I’m running for commission chair.

Residents’ quality of life is eroding in many key areas. To put it simply, Portland’s problems seem to be making their way over to Clackamas County, with the tacit encouragement of our county board of commissioners and its chair. Instead of focusing taxpayer resources on solutions that could solve some of those problems, our county politicians are demanding more taxes be paid to them and other organizations like Metro. No private business would survive by conducting itself that way.

Take transportation, for example. The county has a big backlog of roads that need to be better maintained. Good customer service would dictate that the county start fixing potholes. Commute times continue to grow as Portland area traffic gets worse over time. Are there any plans to build new roads? Sadly, there are not. It isn’t even being discussed. And given current county political leadership, I don’t expect that to change any time soon.

The answer to our road quality and traffic problems isn’t to continue pouring billions of dollars into inefficient light rail systems that most residents don’t use and never will. It isn’t to charge residents tolls to drive on existing roads that their tax dollars have already paid for. Not only is that a failure of leadership, but it’s bad customer service. Clackamas County residents deserve better than that.

County leadership needs to do a better job of being responsive to citizens’ concerns, rather than viewing them as sources of additional revenue. As chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners, I intend to put the customer service of county residents at the forefront of every decision I make.

Getting Back to Basics

All too often, we see what happens when the government tries to do too much—cost overruns, lax oversight, mission creep between different agencies and core functions not being done well. That is one of the many reasons that I’ve always thought government should stick to doing a few things and should seek to do them well.

In my two terms in the Oregon House of Representatives, I saw the results of the state government trying to be all things to all people. My first term began in 2001 and the nation was in recession. I was assigned to the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee and tasked with balancing the budget amid declining revenues.

Luckily, my colleagues and I were able to accomplish this without raising taxes. We did it by identifying and prioritizing key services. Expensive, non-essential programs that only served a few people were eliminated and spending was brought under control.

In the years since then, our state leaders have constantly expanded the scope of what they think the state government should do. And now that the economy may be headed into recession, the state could be in a world of hurt and potentially painful budget cuts.

One of the reasons I enjoyed serving as Clackamas County Commissioner from 2013 to 2017 is that county government has the unique position of being the closest to the citizens it serves.

During my stint as commissioner, I took the same approach to governance and budgeting that I did in the Legislature. Not only was the budget balanced, but the county had a surplus of funds.

In the years since then, the county leadership has taken a much different direction. The approach has been to grow government’s footprint without regard to the ability to pay for it further on down the line. Consequentially, this fiscal recklessness has meant deficits of $20 million over the last two years and discussions about the need for “rightsizing” county government.

The real problem is that county government got too large in the first place. It’s time to get back to the basics.

County government’s top priorities should be law enforcement and all aspects of its criminal justice system, the infrastructure that is needed to keep people and products moving, and essential services that are valued by citizens, such as alleviating homelessness.

As chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners, I will use my previous experience to return the county’s budget to sound financial footing. I have a proven track record, at the state and county level, of balancing budgets without burdening citizens with higher taxes.

The Importance of Law and Order

Throughout my campaign for chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners, I’ve emphasized the need to focus on the most essential of services. And out of all of them, law and order is arguably the most critical.

When I served on the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners from 2013 to 2017, I strived to ensure that county residents had adequate law enforcement by fully funding the sheriff’s office. It was, and is, important to me that our deputies and other personnel in that office have high morale because that results in better performance and service for citizens.

I advocated for full employment of that office. That includes multiple divisions of the sheriff’s office, such as patrol, jail and investigations. I also voted to keep benefit packages whole by increasing medical benefits.

As your next Clackamas County Board of Commissioners chair, I will use common sense budgeting practices to balance the budget, as I have before, and provide the services that are necessary to keep citizens safe.

I will do this by prioritizing core public service functions over specialty projects.

I’m speaking, specifically, of the new courthouse that the current commissioners are pushing in spite of public opposition.

That project is estimated to cost $230 million, including debt service. Commissioners have considered funding it through a property tax increase of 17 cents per $1,000 in assessed value. The owner of a home valued at $350,000 would face an additional $595 in taxes per year.

It’s true that the Legislature has allocated $31 million to the county for the study and planning of the courthouse. But that is contingent upon the county providing matching funds. Given that the county’s budget has become unsustainable, that scenario is simply unrealistic.

Fortunately, there is a better way to meet the same need for improved courthouse facilities.

The first step would be to renegotiate with the Legislature and aske for the $31 million outright to do the project. Then I would change the project to better meet taxpayers’ needs.

My plan is to rent one of the abandoned mall sites and retrofit it. The cost of this approach would be around $20 million, or less than 10 percent than what is being proposed right now.

The coronavirus situation and the advent of online shopping has caused an increase of available storefronts at malls like the Clackamas Town Center. They include the Sears building, and J.C. Penny’s may soon also be vacant.

Over the long-term, this will keep the properties on the tax rolls through a long-term lease agreement to be worked out with the mall’s owner.

The Clackamas Town Center is located right off of I-205 and is accessible through existing light rail and bus systems. Its buildings already have adequate parking, escalators, elevators and are compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations.

More importantly, I know for a fact that this approach will work. How do I know? Because I’ve done it before, while serving as a Clackamas County Commissioner.

A judge was looking to relocate her crowded courtrooms. So we rented an abandoned commercial structure that had previously housed a Joanne’s Fabrics. The building was located inside of a strip mall right behind the Clackamas Town Center.

I believe that county residents will be much better served by this creative solution than they will by being put on the hook for property taxes to fund a project that they do not support.