Earning Their Keep: Do Elected Officials in the Portland Region Show up for Meetings?

By Nick Pangares and John A. Charles, Jr.

Most elected officials who serve on school boards or city councils do not get paid for service. However, for at least five governing jurisdictions in the Portland metro region, councilors do receive compensation. Those jurisdictions are: the Commissions for Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington Counties; the Portland City Council; and the Metro Council.

This research examined the attendance records for all regularly scheduled meetings for the five jurisdictions during 2014 and 2015. In some cases, there were also “board briefings” or “work sessions” to attend.

In general, most elected officials attended a high percentage of meetings, either by being present or by participating via telephone. Group participation rates usually exceeded 85%, on average.

Washington County Commissioner Greg Malinowski had the best attendance record of all elected officials over the two-year period – 100% for both years. Multnomah County Commissioner Judy Shiprack had the worst two-year record – 70% for board briefings, and 80% for board meetings. She is termed-out and not running for re-election.

Summaries of the attendance records for all elected officials are below. The numbers indicate the percent of meetings where the officials participated.

 

Clackamas County Commission

Regular Commission Meetings

 

Ludlow Savas Schrader Smith Bernard
2014 98% 100% 82% 89% 89%
2015 98% 95% 93% 93% 89%

 

 

Multnomah County Commission

Regular Commission Meetings

 

Madrigal Kafoury McKeel Wendt Baily Smith Shiprack
2014 100% 98% 88% 98% 86% 90% 83%
2015 n/a 92% 97% n/a 89% 95% 77%

 

 

Multnomah County Commission

Regular Briefings

 

  Madrigal Kafoury McKeel Wendt Baily Smith Shiprack
               
2014 100% 93% 83% 97% 94% 90% 70%
2015 n/a 100% 100% n/a 65% 90% 70%

 

 

Washington County Commission

Regular Commission Meetings

 

  Duyck Malinowski Schouten Rogers Terry
           
2014 94% 100% 87% 87% 94%
2015 91% 100% 91% 88% 85%

 

 

Portland City Council

Regular Meetings

 

  Hales Fish Fritz Novick Saltzman
           
2014 92% 83% 92% 94% 85%
2015 97% 92% 97% 92% 85%

 

 

Metro Council

Regular Meetings

 

  Hughes Chase Craddick Harrington Stacey Collette Dirksen
               
2014 84% 97% 95% 97% 97% 97% 89%
2015 93% 98% 95% 98% 100% 98% 93%

 

 

Metro Council

Regular Work Sessions

 

  Hughes Chase Craddick Harrington Stacey Collette Dirksen
               
2014 85% 94% 96% 96% 96% 96% 94%
2015 89% 93% 93% 95% 98% 91% 91%

 

While taxpayers probably expect officials to show up, does attendance really matter? That depends. Strictly speaking, yes. Each body must have a quorum of members present to conduct business. If too many officials skip meetings, decisions can’t be made. So even if individual commissioners are ineffective, a minimum number of them are needed at any given meeting.

Moreover, at most public meetings where agenda items will be voted on, public testimony will be taken. Constituents have a right to expect that when they take the trouble to show up with prepared testimony, elected officials will be there to listen.

However, attendance has little to do with influence or effectiveness. Public meetings are a form of street theatre; all the key decisions have been made ahead of time behind closed doors. So an elected official with a spotty attendance record could easily be the most important member of the body – it’s just that the heavy lifting is being done out of sight.

For example, Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman had the lowest two-year record of attendance among all City Commissioners, but few observers would consider him ineffective. To the contrary, he may be the most influential member of the Council, especially with a Mayor who is not running for re-election.

Metro Presiding Officer Tom Hughes also had the worst attendance record among his peers. Yet any Council member hoping to advance new policy would hardly consider Councilor Hughes unimportant.

There are also extenuating circumstances. What we see may not reflect the whole story. According to Commissioner Malinowski:

“The issue of absences turns out to be apples and oranges most of the time. This is partially because 4 out of the 5 commissioners are part time, and most of the time the reason Commissioners miss meeting is because of prior obligations regarding outside County business. If you compare absences with the schedule of each commissioner, this is usually the case. However, meeting attendance and communication is critical, particularly when technical questions about County business need to be answered.”

When asked if there should be a required minimum participation rate for meetings, Commissioner Malinowski responded:

“Overall the honor system of attendance is working, and I don’t see a need for a minimum attendance rate requirement. Many times what happens is the Commission will cancel meetings if two or more Commissioners are going to be absent. This usually happens on Tuesday evening meetings.”

The value of attendance is ultimately determined by voters. Those who are satisfied with the performance of their representative may overlook a mediocre participation rate.

However, voters should remember two things. First, for the five jurisdictions featured in this report, elected officials get paid to show up. They are not volunteers.

Second, attendance does matter. If everyone takes a night off, no business gets transacted. And running a government entity is a business.

About the authors: Nick Pangares is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute. John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute and also serves on the board of a rural water district in Clackamas County. Volunteer Bob Ludlum assisted with data gathering for this report.

To Save the Library, Don’t Leave Good Ideas on the Shelf

Sometime in the next three months, the Multnomah County commissioners will decide whether to place on the May ballot a measure creating a new taxing district for the county library system. If approved, this would become the chief source of tax support for the district, replacing the five-year operating levies that have been the norm since 1990.

However, before commissioners spend too much time debating the measure, they should back up and ask how much money the library system really needs. There are several indications that the costs of operation are too high.

The most troubling sign is the comparison with other medium-sized urban libraries. The Multnomah County system includes 18 branches, and we spent $62 million to operate it in fiscal year 2010-11. Denver has 22 branches and spent only $30.9 million. How does Denver operate more branches at half the cost?

Seattle has 27 branches that the city operates on a $50 million budget, while Minneapolis has 40 branches with a $69 million budget.

Not only are Multnomah County costs high in comparison, they are rising at a rate much faster than inflation. For example, in 1993-94 the annual library operating budget was $19.5 million, which supported 325 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions (roughly $60,000 per FTE). In today’s dollars, that would equate to $92,000 per FTE, all else being equal. Yet in 2010-11 we spent $127,000 per FTE.

There has to be some fiscal restraint even for services we love. But in traditional public sector collective bargaining, restraint is virtually impossible. Management represents a government monopoly, and across the table is a labor cartel (otherwise known as a union). A monopoly negotiating with a cartel is unlikely to result in a low-cost outcome.

The solution is to shop around and take multiple bids. Jackson County, Oregon shut down its library system in 2006 due to financial strain. As soon as officials were in a position to consider reopening, the county took competitive bids for operations. A private firm in Maryland, Library Systems and Services, offered a bid several million dollars lower than the public employee union. That bid was accepted and allowed the county to open the library system again.

LSSI operates library systems in 17 locations around the United States. By specializing, it is able to offer a better user experience at a lower cost.

Library purists may be hesitant to embrace this model, but it’s commonplace in other sectors of the economy. Timberline Lodge, Crater Lake Lodge and the Oregon Garden are all operated by private concessionaires. Central Park in New York and Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square are both managed by private non-profits.

As part of its due diligence, Multnomah County’s Board of Commissioners should compare the cost of our library system with the cost of libraries in other similar cities, then seek competitive bids for operation. The bidding process will provide valuable information that can never be gained by mere study. That information is essential for sound management decisions.