First Oregon Rural Congress Does More Than Gripe
Rural Oregonians were feeling tramped on, abused and ignored. But instead of just complaining, they decided to get together.
The editor of the Baker City Herald wrote that "if rural Oregonians really want to persuade legislators, then they need to be able to explain, in the simplest terms, why certain laws that fit, say, Beaverton, aren't appropriate for Baker City." Downtown Baker City is pictured above.
Photo: Bill Lile
Not every important political meeting in the summer of 2008 took place in Denver or St. Paul. For instance, did you catch what happened in Cascade Locks?
The week before the Democrats mustered in Colorado, rural Oregonians met in Cascade Locks, a town on the Columbia River between Hood River and Portland. More than 200 people came together in the first ever Oregon Rural Congress. It was, one speaker said, a "gathering of the clan."
The ORC began in frustration. Rural Oregonians have long felt what some term the "tyranny of the majority" in a geographically large state that has a majority of its population packed into just three counties. More recently, rural Oregonians have had concrete reasons to feel, well, dissed. For example:
“¢ Gov. Ted Kulongoski decided early this year to shutter to state's Office of Rural Policy just four years after he signed an order that brought it into existence. The legislature in 2007 authorized only enough money to keep the office open for part of the year, and so the governor decided to close it. The office was supposed to be the eyes, ears and vocal chords for rural Oregon in Salem. But it only had one full-time employee; those who supported the office said it was never given a chance to succeed. "The Office of Rural Policy in my opinion was set up for failure," said Sen. Ted Ferroli, a Republican from John Day.
“¢ The Oregon legislature passed an "ethics reform" bill that led to the resignation of nearly 200 local officials, mostly from rural communities. The bill required public officials to release their family members' financial records. That requirement may be okay in the cities, but in smaller towns, people saw it as an unwarranted intrusion. A lot of rural public officials decided that essentially volunteer work shouldn't require that the family's finances be splashed all over town, so they resigned. In Elgin, Oregon, the entire city council, mayor and planning commission quit in the same week.
“¢ The Oregon congressional delegation failed to save federal payments sent to rural communities where logging was reduced on public lands. The money had paid for libraries, schools, roads and law enforcement. Now the public land is neither taxed nor is it a source for local employment. And local governments are digging to make up for lost revenues.
"Truth be told, rural Oregonians have much to be mad about these days," The Portland Oregonian wrote in an editorial. "Too many urban decisions ignite wildfires of unintended consequence that ravage rural communities. That's because for too many Oregonians, the postcard parts of this state remain playgrounds and are seen that way."
Colleen MacLeod, a Union County Commissioner, organized the congress as a way to give rural Oregon both hope and a voice. "We are educated, we are bright. And we are able to land shiny side up if people don't keep flipping us over," said MacLeod.
Suggestions bubbled up during the day of the congress. An educator said that state law requires all public school courses be taught by teachers certified in the subject they are teaching — making it impossible for many smaller schools to offer a wide range of courses. He suggested the state waive the certification requirement for rural schools.
One person suggested that rural community colleges be allowed to add new classes without having to get approval at the state capitol. Another said local officials should have more control over transportation funding, so that bicycle paths aren't built in rural counties with few cyclists.
Outside of Hillsboro, Oregon
Elected officials urged rural residents to be more forceful in their dealings with state and federal governments. “I learned it at 16 years old, in the back of a ’54 Ford four-door, that some of the most interesting conversations begin with the word ‘no,'" said Sen. Ferrioli. Sam Craig of the Dalles Chronicle reported that "Ferroli’s comments were met with cheers and applause from a group that felt tired of having little to no voice in the state."
Colleen MacLeod tells the Yonder she is now busy compiling 252 solutions and suggestions gathered at the congress. She says they range from a call for local governments to manage federal land to proposals for mentally ill residents who are being housed in county jails because state facilities have been closed. "It was just highly successful," MacLeod said of the rural congress. She said she's already planning another in the next several months on the Oregon coast.
"When we first heard about the inaugural Oregon Rural Congress, which took place last week, we figured the event organizers had merely put a new name on an event with the same tired old purpose: to complain," wrote the editorial page of the Baker City Herald. The editorial page from the little town in far eastern Oregon continued with some good advice, and not just in rural Oregon:
The truth is that much of what annoys rural Oregonians about the valley's influence results from factors beyond anyone's control.
More than half of Oregon's registered voters are spread among three of the state's 36 counties: Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington.
Which means that if a lot of voters in those counties agree on something — that hunters shouldn't be allowed to use dogs to tree cougars or bears, for instance — then they'll probably prevail at the ballot box even if voters elsewhere think hunting with hounds is perfectly acceptable.
That's unfortunate if you belong to the minority, but it's not unfair. It's democracy.
This is not to say that events such as Oregon Rural Congress are irrelevant.
In fact such gatherings have the potential to truly matter so long as the participants concentrate on the things they can change.
Laws, for instance.
As MacLeod pointed out, although Oregon's borders encompass an amazing diversity of topography and climate, the state's laws don't always reflect those differences.
"We are firm believers in “˜one size doesn't fit all' " MacLeod said.
Neither are we.
But if rural Oregonians really want to persuade legislators, then they need to be able to explain, in the simplest terms, why certain laws that fit, say, Beaverton, aren't appropriate for Baker City.
That's precisely the purpose of Oregon Rural Congress, MacLeod said.
We'll watch with curiosity to see whether the report that the Congress compiled will lead to real results.