Friday, June 15, 2007

Voices of Support

Thanks very much to everyone who wrote and called, and especially to the people who took time out of their day to attend the meeting. The Commissioners have put off a decision until their final meeting of the budget year on June 27th.

Here's Cassandra Profita's report of the meeting, published in the Daily A. It's a good report but unfortunately couldn't include the many eloquent and moving comments.

Marquis receives voices of support
Clatsop County residents sound off for reinstating stipend for DA;
board still has time to change budget
The Daily Astorian
June 14, 2007

Clatsop County residents rallied in support of District Attorney Josh Marquis at the county commission budget hearing Wednesday.

About 50 people crowded into the Judge Guy Boyington building to sound off on last month's budget committee decision to cut Marquis' $13,900 stipend from the county's 2007-08 budget.

The list of people who asked the commission to return the stipend before approving the budget included former county commissioners, current county employees and concerned citizens. State Sen. Betsy Johnson and state Reps. Deborah Boone and Brad Witt have written letters to commissioners asking them to reconsider.

Three people, including former defense attorney and municipal judge Nicholas Zafiratos, voiced support for the budget committee's decision at the hearing.

When the public comment session at Wednesday's hearing was through, Commissioner Sam Patrick made a motion to reinstate the stipend and - despite applause from the audience - found no support from his fellow commissioners. His motion died for lack of a second.

However, Wednesday's meeting was not the last chance for the board to make changes to the budget.

Pat Roberts was the only commissioner who said she would consider the matter between now and the next meeting June 27, when the board will vote to approve the entire $60 million spending package.

Those pushing for the stipend to be restored told commissioners that cutting the district attorney's pay would make the county less competitive, put public safety in jeopardy and malign a department head who goes beyond the call of duty. The decision was "abrupt" and appeared "mean-spirited," they said. And some argued that in addition to straining an already adversarial relationship between county leaders and Marquis, the move wouldn't go far toward pressuring the state into paying higher salaries to district attorneys.

In May, a budget committee made up of commissioners and citizen members voted 7-2 to cut the county's discretionary stipend from the budget, reducing Marquis' total pay to the $79,512 salary he receives from the state. Commissioner Jeff Hazen initiated the vote to make the cut and found support from citizen committee members and commissioners Ann Samuelson and Roberts. Commissioners Patrick and Richard Lee voted no.

The hearing came after months of disagreement between Marquis and county leaders over the budget for the district attorney's office. Over the course of several months as the county budget process progressed the funding for two new deputy district attorneys was in the spotlight and raised questions of how much work the DA's office actually does. Confusion over what kind of performance measures were available and necessary aggravated what some commissioners have called an adversarial relationship between Marquis and the county.

Tensions rose so high between County Manager Scott Derickson and Marquis that at one point Commissioner Hazen intervened via e-mail and told Marquis to stop his "tyrannical attacks." At one point, county leaders were considering the need for a professional mediator to improve communications with Marquis.

At the hearing, Hazen said he did not see the need for a mediator, but he wanted to set up a work session with Marquis to build a better relationship.

Some residents criticized the surprise factor of the committee's decision and told commissioners their process was wrong and their explanation didn't add up, while supporters said the board had the right to do what it did.

Burr Allegaert, a former county budget committee member, told commissioners they could have reduced the stipend gradually if they believed, on principle, the county shouldn't supplement a state employee's salary. That would have given them time to start negotiating with the state to pay Marquis more. Instead, they decided to "lop it off altogether" in an "unfair procedure" that was "not in the purview of the committee and "was sprung almost as an afterthought."

"As a citizen, I want my county government to be public, above board," said Astoria resident Roger Rocka. "There's something about the process by which the stipend was removed that bothers me. If the reasons stated for cutting the stipend are true, they defy logic and common sense."

Zafiratos said in the budget committee's decision had "nothing to do" with whether Marquis is a good attorney.

"Technically, in court he's good," he said. "It comes down to you have the authority and the duty to do what you did. ... I commend your action and hope you keep doing the right thing."

Three former county commissioners weighed in on the issue, one of whom, Bob Green, who lives in Seaside, gave measured support for the committee's decision. The county was in a tight budget situation, said Green, and Marquis acted "childish" after his stipend was cut.

"Josh has diverted valuable staff and commissioners' time so he can play his ego game," said Green. He gets "a failing grade" for the way he has dealt with the commission, he said, though he does better in the courtroom and the commission should lobby the state legislature to increase salaries to district attorneys.

Former county commissioner Tim Gannaway said he "was never a rubber stamp for Josh Marquis" when he sat on the board, but he still asked the commissioners to reconsider.

"I don't see how cutting the stipend would motivate the state to increase funding for district attorneys," he said. The cut in pay was more likely to make Marquis less cooperative and more contentious, and because he's an elected official, the county manager "can't just fire him," Gannaway said. "We could do worse than Josh, and in the past we have."

Former county commissioner Tom Carmichael, who was in town visiting from Arizona, said keeping the stipend keeps the county competitive.

"I haven't always gotten along with Josh Marquis, but he's done his best for Clatsop County," said Carmichael. "If you're going to keep a good district attorney - and I believe Josh Marquis is a good district attorney - you've got to be competitive."

In other business, the board voted 3-2 to hold all of its regular meetings in the Judge Guy Boyington Building in Astoria with a stipulation that meetings with items of significance to a specific district or community on an agenda can be held in other locations. Previously the commission alternated between Astoria and Seaside. Patrick and Roberts voted no.