© 2022 Tootie Smith for Oregon. All Rights Reserved.

Promises Made, Promises Kept

This time last year, I was elected chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners outright in the May 2020 primary election. I accomplished this by winning over 50 percent of the vote, meaning that a runoff in the November general election would not be necessary.

People all over Oregon took notice of my upset win. I had taken on an incumbent with a huge war chest of campaign cash, was heavily outspent and still came out on top.

Many people wondered how I managed to pull it off.

As a longtime resident of this county, I’m keenly aware of the issues that matter the most to my neighbors. I’ve always made it a point to keep in touch with people and hear their concerns about the issues affecting them. And most importantly, I paid attention to what the board of commissioners and its former chair were doing and where those actions and decisions were leading the county.

In the years since I had last served as commissioner, the county went from being responsive to citizen concerns to more worried about the well-being of consultants who provided questionable services to people who never asked for them in the first place.

Instead of being mindful about the way that taxpayer dollars were being spent, the board’s chair was constantly looking for more ways to fund these bogus expenses and unnecessary expansion of non-essential county government operations.

Rather than having a budget that balanced, it was ballooning, bulging and becoming unsustainable.

Perhaps worst of all, the priorities of Clackamas County residents were taking a backseat to those of Metro.

Serving the citizens was less of a priority for the former chair than his own family’s personal financial gain. The Oregon Government Ethics Commission was sufficiently outraged by his actions to find him guilty and impose a fine. The former chair then had the audacity to ask county taxpayers to foot the bill for his related legal expenses. His fellow commissioners went along with it, until public outrage caused them to reverse their position.

I took office in January and hit the ground running to get the county going back in the right direction. When I found out that Metro was charging our constituents too much for garbage pickup service, I lead the charge to hold that agency accountable.

When it was suggested that our commissioners and other elected officials should get pay raises, I voted against it. I also made every effort to repeal a vehicle registration fee that the previous board put in place with no public input.

While we’ve been successful in getting the county’s budget back to being balanced and pushing back on Metro, I’ve also been outvoted on some of these matters. I’ve also had to contend with the constant use of our regular business sessions as soapboxes for activists who are still disgruntled that the commissioners they supported and campaigned for were fired by the county’s voters for doing a bad job.

I’m pleased to report that, after almost half of a year on the job, Clackamas County is back on track.

Reversing years of poor policy decisions and misplaced priorities hasn’t been easy. Nor will it all get done overnight. However, I’m just as committed to the cause as I was last year, when the results of the 2020 May primary election were first announced.

As always, I invite comments by all at any time here…

Hold Their Feet to the Fire

As chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners, it’s my job to set the agenda in such a way that the county’s 400,000 residents are well-served. When I suspect that they aren’t being well-served, I must bring that to the attention of my fellow commissioners so we can work together to make it right.

This is exactly what happened recently. I was informed that Metro may be overcharging county residents for trash collection services.

Unfortunately for Metro, they’ve been called out on this bogus practice. The Board of Commissioners has taken the first step towards correcting this wrong, due to public pressure. Now I’m counting on you to help keep up the pressure and hold them accountable.

When I ran for the chairmanship position last year, one of the central planks of my platform was ensuring that Clackamas County residents get their money’s worth. Another was standing up to Metro and not letting that agency take advantage of our taxpayers.

At my direction, an ordinance was drawn up to amend the county’s code to state that if Metro reduces or is required by a court to reduce its tip fee, the waste management fee shall be reduced for customers on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

A first reading of this ordinance was held April 1. As part of that public process, testimony was heard by the board regarding the ordinance.

The citizens who testified were adamant that the county look out for them by passing the ordinance. Like me, they are tired of being taken advantage of by Metro. They’re tired of watching that agency’s budget balloon over time while the problems it’s charged with solving continue to get worse. Most importantly, they know it’s not right for Metro to overcharge our county’s residents. And they’re getting tired of hearing excuses as to why this agency refuses to be responsive to the public it’s supposed to be serving.

All five of the Clackamas County Commissioners voted to approve the first reading of that ordinance. While that’s an encouraging first step, this matter is not yet settled.

In order to be officially passed, ordinances need to have first and second readings. The April 1 meeting was the first reading of the proposed ordinance. Its second reading is scheduled for the board’s April 15 business meeting, which starts at 10 a.m.  

Anyone hoping to testify on this ordinance can do so either in person or virtually via Zoom. The link to the meeting webpage, which has information on how to participate via Zoom, is below:

Board of County Commissioners’ Business Meeting (In-Person and Virtual Meeting) – April 15, 2021 | Clackamas County

The passionate testimony of concerned citizens helped the commissioners decide to vote to move this issue forward to the final vote on April 15th. And even though all of the commissioners voted for it, some may change their minds if the public doesn’t speak up again on this issue.

We’re so close to getting a huge win for this county’s taxpayers. All we need is for you to again express your support for this ordinance to get it through to passage.

Once again, you can attend the meeting in-person or on Zoom. Details on the meeting below:

Board of County Commissioners’ Business Meeting (In-Person and Virtual Meeting) – April 15, 2021 | Clackamas County

Thank you for adding your voice and allowing me to serve in defense of Clackamas County.

Tipping Fee Tipping Point.

Metro is up to its same old tricks. And we need to tell them to stop it.

Metro is overcharging for residential garbage and the Clackamas County Commission can put an end to this by simply amending the county code to pass on reduced Metro fees to the residential customers that are being overcharged.

We need your voice of support to help correct this violation. 

This time last year, I was campaigning for chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners on a platform of fiscal responsibility. That included a pledge to county residents to ensure they get what their tax dollars are paying for.

I also ran on the need for the board of commissioners to put the county and its residents before those of outside entities like Metro.

Voters agreed with my stances, and I won the chair position outright in the May 2020 primary election. But even though county residents had expressed their desire for more responsible handling of their hard-earned money, I’m still faced with resistance from agencies, public employees with agendas and some of my fellow commissioners.

First, I fought to repeal the vehicle registration fee that the previous board of commissioners imposed without adequate public process. Now, I’m taking on Metro, as all indications are that it’s up to the same old shenanigans when it comes to your money.

Metro operates a dump in Clackamas County. Whenever a hauler goes to dump garbage there, it pays a tipping fee to Metro of just under $100 per ton.

The county grants franchises for trash collection services and its board of commissioners establishes a waste management fee to set the limit on what the franchisee may charge to customers.

But it turns out that Metro is charging garbage customers in the county more than the service costs to provide. Even worse, Metro is paying the contractors who actually provide the service less than they’re supposed to. Documentation exists to prove these claims.

This is in direct violation of Metro’s charter. Section 15 of that document states that “charges for the provision of goods or services by Metro may not exceed the costs of providing the goods or services.” As such, the tip fee is illegal and must be reduced to a charge that is in a legal amount more in line with the cost of providing those services.

Metro’s dubious practice was challenged in court by a couple of county residents. In response, Metro had an attorney file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that Clackamas County residents lack standing in the matter. In other words, Metro used your tax dollars to pay an attorney to tell a judge that it’s none of your business if you don’t get the services you’re paying for.

An argument made by Metro’s taxpayer-funded attorneys states that even if the tipping fee is reduced, there is no guarantee the savings will be passed on to county residents. To me, this is nothing more than a cop-out and an attempt by Metro to avoid accountability.

In response, I’m putting an ordinance before my fellow commissioners. If passed, it will amend the county’s code to state that if Metro reduces or is required by a court to reduce its tip fee, the waste management fee shall be reduced for customers on a dollar-by-dollar basis.

The first hearing of this proposed ordinance is scheduled for Thursday, April 1 at 10 a.m. A second reading is tentatively scheduled for two weeks later, on April 15.

I’m doing everything I can to look out for the ratepayers and taxpayers in Clackamas County, but I need your help to do so. Any citizens who agree that we should be getting what we pay for out of Metro is strongly urged to participate and testify in favor of the ordinance.

Taking on Metro is no small task, but it’s one I know we can take on together. Help me hold this agency accountable to, and for, every resident of Clackamas County.

Public Service Should Be a Sacrifice

I still fondly remember the two terms that I served in the Oregon Legislature. Because I was on the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, each legislative session meant getting to the capitol early each morning and staying well into the evening for meetings. I would leave my family farm as the sun was rising and make the commute to Salem, perform my legislative duties, drive home, go to bed and repeat that routine until the session was adjourned.

What most people don’t know is that individual legislators have very little power. I was in the Oregon House of Representatives, which meant that mine was only one out of 60 votes in that body. Back then, legislators were paid very little in the way of a salary. Many members were retired or independently wealthy because the body was thought of as a part-time citizen legislature.

So why did I do it? It’s simple: I wanted to serve the public and represent my constituents.

I took a similar approach in the four years I served on the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners from 2013 to 2017. That whole time, I never lost sight of the people I was working for.

One of the biggest reasons I’m running for chair of the Board of Commissioners is I don’t feel that is the approach being taken by Jim Bernard. All indications are that he is putting his own interests before those of the county’s citizens.

Last year, the Oregon Government Ethics Commission (OGEC) found him guilty of ethics violations.

The violation stemmed from the fact that Bernard’s wife worked as the head of a county department. He voted to approve her hiring one year after they got married, instead of recusing himself. In the years since, Bernard has failed to recuse himself from votes to approve pay raises for her.

Bernard got himself in trouble with the OGEC when he used his position as chair of the Board of Commissioners to attempt to obtain documents that his wife could possibly have used in a lawsuit against the county. Her request for information was discussed at a commissioner meeting, and he did not declare a conflict of interest. An executive session was held to discuss the records request. Bernard attended part of that meeting.

What public interest was Bernard serving through all of this? How did his actions benefit the residents of Clackamas County? Well, they didn’t. Situations like this are why the OGEC exists in the first place.

The OGEC launched an investigation and found him to be guilty of ethics violations. State law prohibits public officials from using their positions to benefit themselves, and the OGEC found that Bernard was using his position as chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners to directly benefit he and his wife.

Bernard then had the audacity to ask that the county pay the legal fees he incurred throughout the process. Although his fellow commissioners initially agreed to it, they later changed their minds due to public outcry.

Again, how does having the public pay his personal legal bills serve the public?

Although Bernard has no problem asking county taxpayers to pony up more in property taxes to fund the county and Metro, he isn’t willing to make the same sacrifice. He successfully petitioned the county assessor’s office to reduce his own property taxes by nearly one-third last year.

What’s obvious here is that Jim Bernard is more interested in serving his own needs that he is in serving yours. It is a matter of public record that he has been found guilty of abusing his official elected position for personal gain.

I’ve always viewed public service as exactly that—service to the public. The Clackamas County Board of Commissioners exists to make sure that county residents receive quality services that aren’t already provided by the federal, state or their city governments. It should never be an outlet for any individual commissioner’s individual gain. But that’s exactly what it’s become over the past few years.

Clackamas County residents deserve better than this. They deserve to have their priorities come first, and I intend to honor that commitment, just like I did in the Legislature and during my time on the Board of Commissioners.

A Higher Standard

Public officials are held to high standards, and for good reason—their roles involve being stewards of taxpayer dollars. That’s why it’s important that people holding elected office strive to be honest and ethical.

One of the main reasons I’m running for chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners is I don’t feel those values are being represented in that office. Current Clackamas County Board of Commissioners Chair Jim Bernard has a troubling history of ethical lapses.

Bernard failed to recuse himself on votes to approve his wife as the director of the county’s tourism and cultural affairs department one year after marrying her. He subsequentially voted to approve budgets and pay raises for her.

Around a year ago, The Oregon Government Ethics Commission found Bernard guilty of ethics violations following an investigation.

According to this Oregonian article, Bernard “broke state ethics laws when he used his official position and government email to urge the county to hand over records to his wife for a possible lawsuit against the county.” It was also found that he “failed to declare a conflict of interest at a meeting where his wife’s request for information was discussed” and “attended part of the executive session where his wife’s request for records was discussed.”

Oregon Revised Statute (ORS) 244.040(1) prohibits public officials from using or attempting to use their official position or office to obtain a financial benefit or avoid having a financial detriment for themselves, their relative or household member, that would not have otherwise been available but for holding their position or office. 

To make matters even worse, Bernard convinced his fellow commissioners to have county taxpayers foot the bill for his $20,000 in legal fees pertaining to the investigation of his unethical conduct. That is despite the fact that Bernard and his wife cost taxpayers a quarter of a million dollars per year in salary alone. It is substantially more once you include the costs of their insurance and PERS contributions.

Due to pressure from concerned citizens, commissioners eventually asked Bernard to pay his own legal bills. It never should have come to that. However, his fellow commissioners likely grew weary of the bad publicity they were receiving from that ill-advised decision.

Bernard has never been shy about his desires to have county residents pay higher property taxes, to both the county and to Metro. He is supporting Metro’s pending property tax proposal.

But what most people don’t know is that Bernard himself has gone through the process of having his own personal property taxes reduced. Last December, he filed an appeal with the county assessor’s office, asking for a 32 percent cut in his property taxes. That’s right—he got his own property taxes reduced while supporting additional increases to the property taxes you will be paying.

I’m proud to say that I’ve never been found guilty of ethics violations, nor have any such complaints been filed against me during my multiple stints of serving in public office. At no point did I ever use public office to directly benefit myself or a member of my family or household.

Elections are all about choices. In this regard, the upcoming vote for chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners could not be more clear. Jim Bernard has abused his authority, been found guilty of it, and had the audacity to expect you, as the taxpayer, to fund his legal bills when he got caught. He wants lower property taxes for himself and higher property taxes for you.

As the next chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners, I will hold myself to a high ethical standard and put a stop to the shameful pattern of behavior that we’ve seen out of that office for the past few years.