I’m honored to be AOC’s president for the next twelve months. I’ve been active in this organization since I first took office twelve years ago, and I deeply appreciate all it does to help counties fulfill their core mission of public service. I plan to use this forum to communicate with you regularly about the Association and our work.

We’ve just wrapped up a great annual conference in Eugene, and I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback about the change in format. Instead of building the program around steering committee meetings, we had topic-drive workshops of varying links. I heard from several of you that you liked the variety and flexibility. If you haven’t provided feedback to the board or staff yet, please know that we’d like to hear from you.

The conference is always a bittersweet time, as we say farewell to long-serving colleagues who are leaving elective office. The turnover was greater than usual this year. There are 120 commissioners and county judges in Oregon, and 31 of them who will be in office at the beginning of the New Year weren’t there when 2016 began. Executive Director Mike McArthur calculated that the departing crew represents 300 years of experience. In the 2014 cycle, we saw 150 years of experience depart.

These folks have been trusted colleagues, and often, friends. When you work side-by-side with people for so long, it’s natural to form close bonds. We’re privileged to be part of a pretty exclusive club, and it’s good to be able to share (and sometimes vent) with someone who’s been there.

While it’s tough to say goodbye, one of the wonderful things about this organizations is that it’s constantly self-renewing. There’s always an opportunity for newcomers to jump right into the work. The majority of the freshman class was on hand for some or all of the conference, and it was encouraging to me to see the energy and enthusiasm. I appreciated getting to know several of you, and look forward to meeting the rest of you in the year ahead.

County College

Learning never stops. A wise person once said lifelong learning is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. And that doesn’t stop at the Courthouse door. This is why I want to encourage everyone, but especially our freshman class of commissioners and judges, to take a careful look at County College.

County College was created in 2006, and I’m proud to be a graduate of the first class In fact, about half of all sitting commissioners and judges have taken advantage of this great learning and networking opportunity. It’s a partnership of AOC and the Oregon State University Extension Service. “Dean” Laura Cleland has kept it all running smoothly on the AOC end since the beginning.

Who should enroll in county college? Any commissioner, judge, or high-level staff person can benefit. It’s especially helpful for newcomers, but one thing I remember about that first class is that we have several people with a decade or more of experience who said they learned a lot. The sessions walk you through the scope of county services, authority and responsibilities. Not only will you gain a lot from the expert presenters, you’ll learn a lot from your classmates as well, and you’ll be building a network that will be helpful to you in the challenges ahead.

Haven’t I sold you yet? Maybe I should mention the great diploma you get to hang on your wall, and the fun of marching to “Pomp and Circumstance” when you receive that diploma at the Fall Conference. All kidding aside…I haven’t met one graduate yet who said they were sorry they invested the time and effort in County College.

Presidential Award

One of my first acts as AOC president was to present a new award I created. The AOC Presidential award can be given to any county commissioner or judge, who, in the opinion of the incoming president, has made a significant contribution to the work of this association, his or her community, or both. That’s a pretty broad criterion, by design, but my choice was an easy one.

The first AOC President’s Award went to retiring Harney County Judge Steve Grasty. Here’s what I said in presenting the award:

“This year, with so many long-tenured commissioners and judges leaving public service, the choice might have been a difficult one. But I think one of our colleagues stands out for the way he exemplified Hemmingway’s definition of courage—grace under pressure.

Not only will the recipient of this award receive the first AOC presidential award, he’s also due a second honor—the Understatement of the Year Award. Not too long ago, I saw him at a public forum where he said, “Something interesting happened in my county earlier this year.” That was a perfect statement to embody this man’s quiet dignity and wry sense of humor.

As the New Year arrived, this Judge had already made the decision to retire from elective office at the end of the year. No doubt he was hoping for a quiet year to wind down his current projects and help smooth the path for the transaction to his successor.

2017 proved to be anything but a quiet year for our award recipient, Judge Steve Grasty of Harney County.

I don’t need to review for you the saga of the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. That’s been thoroughly covered. It truly brought the eyes of the nation, and the world, on beautiful, remote Harney County. Through all the turmoil, Judge Grasty was a voice of calm reason, acknowledge the very real grievances that the people of his county have with current federal land management policies, but also speaking up firmly and clearly to say that outside agitators were not welcome, and the people of Harney County could speak for themselves. Thanks to the media coverage, a lot of people got to know that side of Judge Grasty.

I think it’s too bad, though, they didn’t have an opportunity to know the quiet, effective work he’s carried on through the decades to represent the interests of the people who elected him. From a recent article in the Capital Press about Harney County:  “This was a county that in 2014 forged the first collaboration between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and private landowners on conserving Greater sage grouse habitat. It was a remarkable series of agreements: Cattle ranchers agreed to manage their rangeland in a way that benefited the bird, while the feds promised 30 years protection from additional regulation even if sage grouse were added to the endangered species list. The agreements were quickly and widely copied in other Oregon counties and in other states. Many people credit them with the government’s decision to keep sage grouse off the list.” Judge Grasty was the key player in securing those agreements.

It is not only for the extraordinary grace he showed when the spotlight shone on him earlier this year, but for the entirety of his public service, that I am honored to present Judge Grasty with the 2017 AOC Presidential Award.”

Thanks, Ben Boswell

“When you’ve seen one county, you’ve seen one county.”

These days, you’ll hear the Executive Director of the National Association of Counties and lots of other people quoting that truism. The point is simple, yet profound—of the 3,143 counties (or equivalent units of local government) in the United States, each has its own set of challenges and opportunities. A lot of those folks are probably not aware, however, that this saying came from former Wallowa County Commissioner Ben Boswell.

Ben held office from 1993 to 2009, and served as AOC’s president in 2006. Ben has suffered from Parkinson’s Disease for many years, and AOC compiled a series of his pithy sayings and observations in “The Little Book of Benisms.” Copies of the book were given out for donations to Parkinson’s Resources of Oregon.

Just a few of the gems from those pages:

On public speakers: “You need to be done speaking before I’m done listening.”

At a campaign forum, Ben’s wife Claudia was asked what she thought of her husband’s stump speech. She said, “I want to hear the other guy first.”

On lobbying: “Keep it simple, it is easier on the legislators.”

One of the duties of the AOC president is to select chairs for our policy committees. Ben reached out to me, a second-year commissioner, to ask if I was interested in chairing the Human Services Committee. I accepted the job, and that set me on the path that led me to the post I hold today. I tried to emulate Ben in my selections, striving for as representative and diverse a group of co-chairs and vice-chairs as possible. I wasn’t able to accommodate everyone who expressed an interest in serving, but I appreciate everyone who voiced an interest.

As I’ve said before, AOC is only as strong as the commitment of its members. Whether you’re a committee chair or not, we want and need you at the table. The year ahead is shaping up as one of unusual challenges and opportunities. Make your voice heard in Salem and in Washington, and help make a difference for the people we serve.

Contributed by: Bill Hall | AOC President, Lincoln County Commissioner