Most people following or engaged in Oregon politics know or have encountered Susan Morgan. Morgan is no stranger to public service, with 22 years of her life dedicated to helping Oregonians. She came from a family with long-held values in public service. Morgan’s first run in the Oregon political sphere came in the late 90’s when she served as a legislator from Southern Oregon. Her service endured for 10 years. She then went on to be a county commissioner in Douglas County for eight years, and finally, gave the Association of Oregon Counties (AOC) four invaluable years of service, for which, AOC members and staff are beyond grateful.
Morgan’s deep policy and political knowledge, dedication, experience, commitment to personal relationships, and love of the political process brought AOC to the forefront, and elevated the county voice on issues related to revenue, natural resources, and transportation.
Morgan first joined the AOC team to help lead the organization to success as negotiations began on what resulted in the monumental 2017 transportation investment package (HB 2017). The bill resulted in a $1 billion investment over 10 years in maintenance, repair, and replacement for county managed transportation infrastructure, which includes 26,670 miles of county roads, 3,421 bridges, and 26,000 culverts, a tremendous and historic victory for counties.
After this, Morgan was hooked. With the retirement of a long-time AOC staffer, Gil Ridell (in Morgan’s own words) “a true crown jewel of AOC,” Morgan was asked to stay on the team and fill his role covering natural resources and revenue policies. Morgan is modest, and in her recollection of filling the role, she commented that the task was daunting, and likened the transition to “replacing Winston Churchill.” However, with her background, Susan was a natural fit for the position and navigated with ease the complex political and policy dynamics in the Legislature on behalf of counties.
Reflecting on her time at AOC, Morgan said, “it’s surprising how quickly it went and how much ground was covered.” She further commented, “it’s been this amazing saga in my life, and I’ve totally enjoyed working with the folks at AOC – creative, hard-working folks that really want to do the right thing for counties.”
In her work, Morgan highlighted the transportation package, while grueling and time-intensive, was one of the most collaborative processes, and the policy work she is most proud of during her time at AOC. This package resulted in long-enduring policy and funding for counties. For natural resources, she navigated challenging work. She noted the fragility of the economy particularly relating to maintaining the ability of the timber industry to continue to harvest and preserve the jobs in rural Oregon. Morgan also suggested protecting service sector jobs and tourism has been essential in preserving the social-economic structure in rural areas. COVID-19, in particular, has left many service sector and natural resource businesses hanging on by a thread. While her work has surrounded protecting fragile economies, she suggested there is more work to be done. When asked what AOC can be doing proactively in natural resources, Morgan replied, “take a look at the economic structure of the rural parts of the State with an eye to the economic and social stability and sustainability.”
Coos County Commissioner John Sweet, who has worked closely with Morgan on the AOC natural resources committee said of Morgan, “she has so ably guided AOC members through complex policy issues. Her knowledge of the issues, experience in government and the legislative process, and the respect with which she is so clearly held by the many, many people with whom we dealt were invaluable.”
Encapsulating her wisdom is a nearly impossible task, but in an AOC interview, the common themes of advice to commissioners, judges, chairs, and AOC staff surrounded understanding one another’s perspectives and relationship building.
“It’s really important to establish personal trust relationships with legislators and staffers, people in the agencies, and people in different legislative departments like revenue and the legislative fiscal office, and I think that’s a big role of how AOC can continue to be productive and successful,” said Morgan.
“County commissioners are no different from legislators or any other group of people. They get elected to office, but they’re all individuals with their own value system and their own set of experiences and expectations. You have to take time to get to know that and them. Above all, they’re people, and you want to get to know them as people,” she further explained that forging deeper relationships can help guide how you work together, how you define common goals, and create a collaborative process and outcome.
When asked how to make the biggest impact for members, Morgan emphasized the importance of continuing to elevate the voice of counties and county work to bring the most cost-effective and efficient services to Oregonians as commissioners, staff and others advocate at the state, federal, and agency levels. She commented, “I don’t think there’s a magic formula that makes it be successful. I think it’s the courage to keep on trying, and the courage to continue advocating for something that’s worth advocating for.”
Most staff at AOC have seen Morgan as a mentor, and treasure each moment they have been able to receive a highly-revered transfer of knowledge or general exchange with Morgan. “My favorite thing about sitting by the office door, is the rare occasion that Susan is not too busy, and can stop to chat. I have learned so much from those brief moments, about Susan and government in general. I will miss her consistently balanced and kind energy in the office,” commented AOC Executive Assistant, Sara Gamaney.
“It has been a privilege working with Susan as a legislator, watching her as a commissioner, and I am grateful that our time overlapped at AOC. Her leadership and trusted voice has elevated counties and brought great success on many policy fronts,” said AOC Executive Director, Gina Firman Nikkel, Ph.D.
In her retirement, Morgan finally will take a couple of weeks to “just do nothing.” Whether or not Morgan will jump back into public service remains to be seen. She’s eager to get together with her family in Canada, see long-time friends, create new memories with her grandson, and travel.
Morgan’s retirement comes too soon for many at AOC. Commissioners, judges, chairs, staff, and partners all wish Morgan well, but one thing is for certain, her institutional knowledge, optimistic attitude, and even-keeled leadership style will be missed and not forgotten.
AOC thanks Susan Morgan for 22 years of services to counties, to the State, and to AOC.
Contributed by: Megan Chuinard | Public Affairs Associate