Douglas, Curry and Coos County Citizens Lost Their Rights to Vote
Douglas, Curry and Coos County Citizens Lost Their Rights to Vote
By Terry Noonkester
At the close of the January 11th meeting that appointed David Brock Smith as an Oregon State Senator, Commissioner Tim Freeman explained: “This is the 4th legislative appointment in 8 years that I have been involved in, and we have also appointed a clerk, a surveyor, an assessor and …uh … a treasurer and an interim commissioner, that’s 9 elected officials appointed in a matter of 8 years. Nine elected officials that, but for one, one gentleman died and that was certainly not an intent of his own, but the others left early. They created the problem. We are here today to try to solve a problem that we did not create. I want to make sure that folks understand that.”
The month before, former Senator Dallas Heard resigned on December 15, and the next day he endorsed House Representative David Brock Smith to succeed him in his Senate seat. Other candidates were needed to fill the minimum slate required for presentation to the commissioners. The Coquille Convention of January 7th elected that slate by a vote of the Precinct Committee Persons (PCPs) from most of Douglas, Coos, and Curry Counties.
At the January 11th meeting, the unanimous selection by Commissioner Freeman and the other 8 commissioners led to the next two vacancies. The commissioners chose David Brock Smith, who then vacated his House seat. A month later Court Boice (Chris Boice’s 2nd cousin) was chosen by the same commissioners to replace Brock Smith. Court Boice abstained and Coos County Commissioner Rod Taylor was the only commissioner to vote against him. Court Boice’s Commissioner seat was then left vacant to be filled by Jay Trost.
Appointments can be avoided if the resignation date is set within the time periods two months preceding a general election. In the year 2022, the dates spanned from September 8th to November 8th. Dallas Heard let it be known that he was not going to run for another term as Senator as early as March 2022, well before this two month period. The Douglas County Republican Party Executive Board was not notified of Heard’s intention to resign early until his announcement of December 15, 2022. Immediately before the Christmas and New Year holidays and a month before the legislature reconvened maximized the urgency of filling the vacancy before legislature’s first day of session on January 17, 2023.
Brock Smith’s appointment date was shortened further to the 11th, just 10 days after Senator Heard’s resignation date and 20 days before the 30 day deadline set by statute. These were 20 days the unendorsed candidates would have benefited from, as in many cases, their promotional materials were received by the PCP voters after the special election in Coquille had already passed.
Previously, In the summer of 2021, a vacancy was caused by the death of House Representative Gary Lief, his seat was filled by the appointment of former Douglas County Commissioner Christine Goodwin in August of 2021 by Commissioners from Douglas, Josephine, and Jackson Counties.
Still earlier, In 2018, another series of vacancies ensued when Jeff Kruse resigned on March 15, 2018. Dallas Heard was appointed to replace Senator Jeff Kruse. Douglas County Commissioner Gary Leif was appointed to replace Dallas Heard. Christine Goodwin was appointed to replace Gary Leif.
There is an unattended effect of using midterm commissioners as appointees to fill vacant House of Representative seats. The staggering of election cycles of the Douglas County Commissioners has shifted. Now all three seats become vacant at the same time.
To solve this problem, David Brock Smith has sponsored House Bill 2244 that states “:… In a county in which the terms of the three offices of county commissioner are not staggered because two positions elected to fill midterm vacancies were extended to four-year terms, the current term of the third office of county commissioner shall be extended by two years so that the terms of the three offices are staggered”.
ORS 204.010, states that “…When two or more county commissioners are elected for one county at a general election and one of them is elected to fill a vacancy, as provided in ORS 204.005 …, one of them shall hold office for two years and the others four years.
The hearing panel did not understand how the staggering was lost as other counties have not had this problem. The Douglas County Commissioner’s reasoning for giving the two prior candidates a full term of four years when filling a midterm vacant seat was that the election was won during the primary race. A primary candidate that wins a nonpartisan position by more than 50% is declared the winner at the primary level rather than the general election as mentioned in ORS 204.010.
House Representative David Brock Smith and Commissioner Tim Freeman testified in favor of HB 2244 from minutes 18 to 38 in the Video of the Heaing of the 2023 session of the Oregon Legislature, Committee On Rules, on 01/31/2023 at the 1pm hearing. The Oregon Constitution states that “…the Legislative Assembly shall not create any office, the tenure of which shall be longer than four years”.
If this bill passes, Commissioner Tim Freeman, who is currently in Seat 2, would receive the proposed two year extension. Passage of HB 2244 would result in legislation substituting and thus circumventing the voters choice for the duration of those two years.
Appointments are frequent in the Douglas County elective positions as well. Of the 6 elected officials in Douglas County, 4 were originally appointed and 2 were elected by the people. Sheriff John Hanlin and Treasurer Samuel Lee III are the two originally elected.
County District Attorney Richard Wesenberg was appointed by the state in 2008 and elected to his fifth term November 2020. He had worked in the office since 1992 and replaced Jack Banta who retired July 2008.
Assessor Heather Coffel was appointed to replace Roger Hartman who retired in July of 2018.
Surveyor Ron Quimby was appointed on August 30, 2021 after the sudden and unexpected passing of Douglas County Surveyor Kris DeGroot.
The County Clerk and Recorder position has had the last three clerks enter the position by appointment. (1) In 2019 Dan Loomis replaced Patricia Hitt. (2) In 2013 Patricia Hitt was appointed to replace Barbara Nielsen. (3) In 2003 Barbara Nielsen was appointed to replace Doyle Shaver Jr. Each was later elected to the position as an incumbent. With the Clerk’s office being the head of elections, it would be clear that avoidance of appointments is necessary for fair and free elections.
The appointment of Clerk Dan Loomis on October 2, 2019 was an anomaly because he did not work for the Clerk and Recorder’s office when he was appointed to replace Patricia Hitt. This raised a controversy because Patricia Hitt had recommended either of two of her office personnel to fill her position; Rosemarie Wess who was the chief deputy clerk or Andrew Taylor who was the office manager.
Loomis reportedly said he would lean on their expertise to help him. “What better way to become the elected county clerk than to have 15 months of training in doing it?” Loomis said. Loomis had dropped out partway through running for county commissioner and threw his support to Tom Kress who won the election. Tim Freeman and Chris Boice voted unanimously to appoint Loomis as clerk.
The News-Review article by reporter Carisa Cegavske quotes Loomis as saying, “I just want to serve the county. I want to ensure the election integrity. I want to make sure that it’s easier than ever for people to create and access records at the clerk’s office.” Many people have concluded that those goals have not been kept.
Special elections and appointments have taken a dramatic rise in replacing elections “by the people” in recent years. A resignation from any elected office breaks a commitment to voters, narrows the field of candidates, and causes disadvantages to unendorsed special election candidates. Whether or not the vacancy is created by the resignation of an elected official, or by commissioners filling a position with another politician serving a term of office, an election “by the people” is bypassed and the voters are disenfranchised.