Monday, March 26, 2007

Sulzberger Doesn’t Get It

In a front page article in yesterday’s Oregonian, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger wonders why voters have elected Multnomah County commissioner Lonnie Roberts eleven times to public office.

Roberts says he doesn't know how to type and doesn't like to read. If he were any other county employee, his frequent absences would almost certainly cost him his job, but as one of their leaders he enjoys the insulation a four-year term provides. Voters in the wide swath of open land and fast-growing cities that make up east Multnomah County either haven't noticed or cared -- electing him nine times to the Oregon Legislature and twice to the county commission, often unopposed.

"He is very, very popular," said state Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, who decided not to run against Roberts in 2004. "The community loves him and will vote for him every time."

Sulzberger fails to understand County government. He doesn’t realize that some kinds of elected officials, especially policy makers, don’t do the kind of work where sitting at a desk 8 to 5 is important.

Unlike City of Portland commissioners who run bureaus, County commissioners are legislators--policy makers. They’re not administrators. Being accessible Monday through Friday, 8 to 5, is important for an administrator. Being at working and voting sessions is what’s important for a legislative policy maker. In a strange omission Sulzberger fails to mention how many County board meetings Roberts attends or how often he misses votes. Did Sulzberger even do research on that?

There hasn't been a big outcry from voters that Lonnie is only accessible half the year. One wonders if this isn't a tempest in Sulzberger's teacup.

Roberts’ results are in how he represents his district and the county. In fact, he’s the only county commissioner among those serving last term who the Oregonian didn’t think deserving of a recall vote for backroom political decisions. But, perhaps Sulzberger, fairly new to Multnomah County, doesn’t know about that.

Sulzberger has a peculiar way of presenting facts. He sniffs at Roberts starting as a "truck driver turned career politician."

In three decades of public life Roberts, a former truck driver turned career politician, earned a reputation as a likable though loafing leader, a backslapping good old boy more interested in the social than political elements of elected office.

That Roberts has done a fine job on the political elements too is shown by eleven electoral victories--and without a single major editorial favoring his recall. Not bad.

Of most interest is Sulzberger’s objection to the fact that Roberts has a trusted aide, Gary Walker, who does tons of high level work for Roberts and Multnomah County--for cheap.

County staff take all matters directly to Walker. He devours every document that crosses the commissioner's desk, picking only the most important to condense and share with his boss. He estimates he works twice the maximum 1,039 hours he can be paid under restrictions from his public retirement plan. For his efforts, Walker received a $35,000 bonus earlier this year -- by far the largest given to a county employee in memory and more than his $34,000 salary, which he set himself.

Here’s a guy getting only $34,000 a year (before bonus) for top level work--and lots of hours put in doing it. I wonder if Sulzberger bothered to check out the going rate for county salaries. The majority of Multnomah County workers, make more money than Walker. Even Multnomah County truck drivers (Lonnie's old position) make only $400/month less at entry level. With seniority, they actually make more than Walker.

Sulzberger is also upset that he (and possibly unnamed reporters who helped him on the story) had a hard time getting a private meeting with Roberts.

Three times, Roberts agreed to meet one on one with a reporter for this story. Three times, Walker canceled the meeting over Roberts' objections.

When Roberts finally did sit down alone, he explained his staff's protectiveness. "They get nervous about me. But I've done this for a long time."

A moment later, a visibly panicked Walker stormed in.

"You don't want anyone in here?" Walker asked Roberts.

"I don't need anyone in here," Roberts said.

"Let's get someone in here," Walker said.

Roberts laughed. "I got a baby sitter."

Reading this story, it’s clear that Walker was right. Sulzberger wanted to do a hit piece on Roberts, without any context of the backroom, dysfunctional county government that Lonnie Roberts has stood in contrast to for more years than is comfortable to recall.

Roberts has also stood up for east county issues against the more populous west county steamroller--something City Commissioner Randy Leonard also frequently notes. But that flies over Sulzberger’s head.

The question is not “Why have voters elected Roberts again and again?” The question is why an Oregonian reporter thinks a lone commissioner practicing above board, open government and standing up for his constituents is not contributing positively to political and civic issues.

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