Writings and observations

Lonnie Roberts
Lonnie Roberts

If you hang round government long enough, you’ll see cases like this: The elected official who got there and stays there because he’s liked, but not because he does much work. In relatively fortunate cases (like this one), there’s at least an energetic staff that helps make up for it. But still . . . these are guys not really earning their keep.

Cases like that often become local political lore and not much beyond, because they reflect patterns of behavior that can be hard to document. Except that in this cases, the Oregonian‘s Arthur Gregg Sulzberger did just that in the case of Multnomah County Commissioner Lonnie Roberts.

Sulzberger’s story begins: “When Lonnie Roberts shows up to work — after a 7 a.m. wake-up call from his top aide — he plays computer solitaire, listens to conservative talk radio and banters with staff. But Roberts, who earns $80,000 a year as a Multnomah County commissioner, doesn’t even set foot in his office on nearly half of work days, records show. One door down, [his chief of staff] Gary Walker, who arrives each morning about 6 a.m., reads Roberts’ e-mails, returns his phone calls, writes his speeches, deals with other commissioners and pushes pet projects forward.”

And so it goes on, interspersed with occasional and pathetic-sounding defenses from Roberts. (An on-line report is headed, “Powerful chief of staff pulls county commissioner’s dead weight.”) But which does help explain the recent and controversial $35,000 bonus Roberts recently awarded to Walker.

Years ago, Roberts was by profession a trucker and salesman, a member of the Teamsters Local 81; his connections were good enough to win a seat in the Oregon House, for 18 years after his first election in 1980. He was elected to the five-member Multnomah commission in 2000, representing the eastern part of the county – the Gresham and Troutdale vicinity (close to 160,000 people).

In 1998, he lost a primary contest for the state Senate to Frank Shields, who went on to hold that Senate seat until last year. In 2000, Shields decided to run for the county commission, and Roberts filed as well; this rematch went the other way, Roberts winning 41.6% to 36%.

Since then, the politics have been a little smoother. In 2004, he had an easy run (he won with 82.2%). The Oregon Blog’s endorsement take (it endorsed him) at that time: “Of all the commissioners, Roberts has the fewest successes to cite. Lucky for him, he also has the least competition. I actually think [opponent Lonnie] Stout, a retired trucker, might do a decent job. He’s got an interesting mix of experience. But as the election nears, Stout has effectively withdrawn from the campaign due to the death of his father.”

But Willamette Week pointed out that year, even while also endorsing him, “County insiders worry about Roberts’ work ethic and susceptibility to the influence of his much more conservative staffer, onetime Oregon Citizens Alliance compatriot Gary Walker.”

He is the most conservative of the commissioners (relatively; and considering thagt he’s representing the most conservative sector of the county), the one who in 2004 did not go along (was left out of) the commission’s ill-handled decision to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. That made electoral life a little easier.

But will it remain so? Roberts’ seat comes up for election next year, and the accelerated attention to his work patterns have cast a sharp spotlight on him. Discussion and debate ranges across a number of places (Blue Oregon has a good sample). Might the hours spent at work turn into a hot political issue?

Will Roberts, for that matter, be inclined to run again under those circumstances?

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Oregon

Teton County
Teton County density (red, orange, yellow high density)

Little Teton County, one of Idaho’s smaller both geographically and in population, is about to teach itself some lessons about growth. And we’ll all be interested to find out what those lessons are.

The county may be small but, owing to its location a few miles from fast-growing Jackson, Wyoming, it has been growing, as fast as more celebrated parts of the state. That growth has been causing increasing pressures, to the point that the county lost (by resignation) its third deputy planner in three years, a result of overwork – a doubling of work load in the last year. Two of the county’s commissioners, Alice Stevenson and Larry Young, responded to that and other pressures by proposing a sweeping six-month moratorium on growth in the county.

They and the third commissioner, Mark Trupp, who opposes the moratorium, held a hearing on it Monday night. The hearing drew about 100 people (a big crowd for Driggs) was so intense it went on until 2 a.m. today, finally resulting in a 2-1 passage of the proposal.

Opinions are bitterly divided over it. One news post commenter who was there remarked, “The discussion was fired up- definitely some very pragmatic and concerned new comers were pitted against some of the most pissed off ranchers I’ve ever seen. A few ranchers got up and flat out threatened the commissioners for bankrupting their family and trashing their retirement(overstated!). One old timer’s sale tanked as a result of the proposal. He was angry. It’s a well intentioned issue and development in Idaho is definitely disfunctional, but the way it was handled is pretty backwards.”

Next up, apparently, is a recall effort against Stevenson and Young.

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Idaho

Jim Tibbs
Jim Tibbs

The battle for mayor of Boise is joined today: Council member Jim Tibbs is in the race to try to take out incumbent Mayor David Bieter. (He is preparing to announce as this is posted.)

Tibbs is a serious candidate with real political assets to bring to the table. He won a city council seat two years ago, showing some political capability and support. He has a significant base of personal support. And a lot of all that grew out of his community roots, decades serving on the city police force (quite visibly, in the later years), and his and his wife’s other varied community activities.

He might win; but we think (and we know this will draw rebuttals) his remains an uphill attempt.

Incumbency is a hard thing to beat, and incumbents ordinarily lose only when some sweeping move or series of bad mistakes work against them. Neither seems to be the case with Bieter. The political mood of the city seems to be moving more in his direction than otherwise; and while we won’t argue he’s run a perfect city hall, we get no sense that Boiseans have a compelling reason to fire him – which is what you usually need to oust an incumbent.

For his part, Tibbs’ statement on his web site is all positive and about himself. It makes a plausible case for Tibbs as mayor, highlighting his depth of background locally and his range of experience. But there’s no indication of why the incumbent needs to be fired, and that’s almost always a prerequisite for defeating an incumbent.

Of course, the race can take on new colors as it goes on. (And there’s no guarantee the race will be limited to these two.) It’ll be worth a watch, and it may have something to say about where Boise is headed in the next few years.

UPDATE Idaho Statesman editorial page editor Kevin Richert links to this post on his blog: “Northwest political writer Randy Stapilus offers a good early take on a Bieter-Tibbs race, making a good argument for why Tibbs faces an uphill struggle. I agree with Stapilus: the burden of proof is on the challenger to make the case to fire the incumbent, and that’s the essence of what Tibbs will have to do. I’d add one more proviso: I think Boise’s politics are evolving more to the left, and this favors Bieter, who served in the Legislatuire as a Democrat. Bieter is always the first guy to point out that city races are nonpartisan — and they are. But those voters who swung last fall to elect five Boise Democrats to the House are likely Bieter voters.”

We’d agree with that last point (and would note that we’ve made it ourselves on earlier occasions).

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Idaho