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Work patterns

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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