Thursday, May 17, 2007

What's in the Water?

What's in the water at the courthouse?
Would you inflict a 15 percent pay cut on one of your top managers?
Editorial in the Daily Astorian, May 17, 2007


Imagine that your company has a high visibility top performer. Imagine that his or her department has a high rate of success. Imagine that his or her department must now cover an additional set of clients. Imagine that employee has been with your firm for 13 years.

Would you cut that person's salary by 15 percent? Probably not. It wouldn't make sense.

That's what the Clatsop County Budget Committee did to the district attorney Monday. The county budget process began as a peaceful and businesslike budget discussion. Suddenly it became the annual tug of war over the DA's office budget. The finale - to cut the county's portion of the DA's compensation - was an utter surprise. The first rule of politics and government is: Don't surprise.

The district attorney's compensation has two components: a state share and a much smaller local stipend. Clatsop is one of 22 Oregon counties that supplements its chief prosecutor's salary with a stipend.

There is managerial illogic in cutting the district attorney's salary. There is also a smallness in the behavior of the county commissioners who form the nucleus of the budget committee. One of them, in concert with the others, executed a surprise attack. It is reminiscent of the commission's bad old days which regularly produced boneheaded decisions in the courthouse. Remember when that enlightened bunch decided to make the county's personnel director a half-time position? Remember the afternoon when three commissioners failed in their attempt to fire the county manager so they resigned, which forced Gov. Barbara Roberts to appoint a commissioner in order to obtain a quorum?

That was amateur hour, and this is amateur hour.

You wonder what's in the water at the courthouse. Otherwise-competent people join the county commission and begin to do foolish things.

Within the district attorney's pay cut there is an implicit message from the Board of Commissioners: "We wish you would leave." Or is it: "Don't be such an aggressive prosecutor." Perhaps it's "Go easier on our friends who are charged with drunken driving."

We've seen this plot in bad Westerns. The nefarious saloon owner torches the home of the sheriff or prosecutor to drive him out of town.

Being an effective district attorney doesn't build friendships. Like the county jail, it is an office without a constituency. But there are people in Clatsop County who appreciate having a competent prosecutor at a time when big-league drug operations move into our county and when the county will reliably see a murder or sex crime or animal abuser annually.

If this decision is entirely budget-driven, and not a vindictive, personal attack, then presumably, in a spirit of leadership, County Administrator Scott Derickson will be lining up for his 15 percent salary reduction.

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