Breaking the Silence
Now that the testimony is over
by Rob Handy
Now that the lawsuit against County Commissioners Sorenson, Fleenor and me is safely in the hands of the judge, I feel free to break my silence. The seeds of this lawsuit go back two years to my entrance on to the county political scene. In those first days of being a rookie commissioner, I was welcomed by some friendly county staff and was warned by others to watch my back as there were a couple of staffers who had very strong and personal feelings about me beating a long-time incumbent. I was warned that a few of these staffers also seemed to be acting as political operatives for those outside the county who had very specific political agendas.
It became clear in my first weeks in office that this was true; I saw that a few staffers consistently reported on hallway conversations, one-on-one meetings and/or overheard comments (the non-glass walls are paper thin) to county staff throughout the organization, to political opponents and to the media. In my very first week in office, I received the first of what would be a series of “tips” from within the county that a few staff members were spreading rumors that the three of us were meeting together. No one would state exactly who was spreading these — and other rumors — just that we should always be aware that our conduct was being monitored. Since I had no conduct I was worried about, I simply shrugged and moved on. I have never known how to effectively respond to anonymous attacks.
A key point for the public to understand is the fact that there is nothing illegal or unethical about three or even four or five county commissioners getting together outside of the public setting. We can gather, and in the past some have — to debate Duck games, for political functions, lunch, birthday parties or sporting events. What Oregon law states is that three or more commissioners cannot get together as a quorum and deliberate on county business outside of the public eye. For me, because of the early warnings, I decided not to open myself up for speculation and to never put myself in a situation where three of us, let alone four or five of us were together, however innocuous. It is ironic to me that in the end, this didn’t matter. We were accused of it anyway.
Folks, we work in glass offices, side by side, and commissioners are constantly popping in and out of each other’s offices. It is how we work as the commissioners of today; it is how they worked in yesteryears, and how we will be working with the new board, come January. One-on-one communication is essential to good governance and to building the working relationships necessary to be effective.
Another issue in the lawsuit became about a set of meetings that happened before and during the budget process in the spring of 2009 by some folks on the budget committee. After reflecting on the criticism about those meetings, I feel I did learn a valuable lesson — although I learned it long before it became an issue in this lawsuit. We met, first as just the brand new members, and then were joined later by a few others to make sure we were up to speed — there were many complex as well as controversial items we were dealing with during that time. I asked our county counsel if it was OK for these meetings to occur — and was told that it was fine as long as we never met with a quorum. We made sure there was never a quorum and met mostly in the glass conference room at the commissioners’ office before moving the last few meetings to the open restaurant of the Hilton. Although we never had a quorum, I could see — after the fact — how those meetings, while not illegal, were perceived to be back-room politics. It is ironic that I already learned from that rookie mistake long before it was ever made a headline issue in a court of law; there have been no meetings of those types occurring in the three budget processes that occurred after the spring of 2009.
This lawsuit was filed in order to bring political harm to us by our political opponents. It seems clear that Seneca Sawmill and its allies were joined by an attorney who works with Bill Sizemore in order to meet a political agenda. They simply used staffers willing to act as political operatives in our own office to accomplish this. I believe that this lawsuit has damaged not only our personal reputations but also the belief that people have in government itself. I believe in the electoral process: If any elected official acts in a way that is unacceptable then we vote him or her out of office. We don’t file weak civil lawsuits that turn government into a public circus that costs us much in public resources and in morale.
I look forward to next year and continuing the hard work of governing Lane County, and I appreciate all the support as well as the criticism I have received in these past months. I believe I keep learning from my mistakes and correct them. Although painful, I think all of this makes me a stronger and better commissioner
Rob Handy serves on the Lane Board of County Commissioners. He can be reached at Rob.Handy@co.lane.or.us