All Politics is Local

So long, farewell

That’s right. I’m leaving The Columbian, date certain next Wednesday. And while I’m not keen on navel-gazing valedictions — the kind that come with sweeping pronouncements of lessons learned, wisdom gained, cosmic truths imparted — indulge me for a few hundred words so I can say my forget-me-nots.

It’s the least you can do, you rotten sack of bums.

I’m sorry. That was mean. You’re more like a bindle of bums, slung high over the shoulder of a 1930s era hobo who’s riding the rails in search of opportunity. And if that’s a little too meta for you, I apologize. I’m feeling a little punch drunk.

After more than two years at The Columbian, nine months of which was spent covering Clark County, I’m leaving to join the communications team for an international nonprofit that provides disaster relief. I’ll be out of your hair.

You’re welcome, Clark County.

I won’t bore you with a play-by-play of what happened over the past several months, during my time watching the county elders cluck their tongues. Readers of APIL are, by and large, political animals. You pay attention to what’s happening and know who the county’s political personalities are. You don’t need a recap. There’s no need to reiterate that the charter passed, or that Jeanne Stewart is the new county commissioner, soon to be councilor. Most readers understand other truths, too, like that there’s no love lost between Commissioner David Madore and Auditor Greg Kimsey.

Instead, I’ll recount some stray observations that I’ve gleaned over the months.

First, county government is not a well-oiled machine politically speaking. Now, before you scream “reporter bias,” allow me to interject by saying this is an objective observation, not a critique. Let me also disabuse you of the notion that it has anything to do with the commissioners being Republicans. No, it has everything to do with what the commissioners say and how they say it. It also relates to what they do, or don’t do, how they’re perceived, and how they respond to that perception.

For example, I’ve never seen political figures speak so highly of certain ideals — for one, the need for more “transparency,” Madore’s favorite buzzword — while only selectively living up to them. Real transparency would mean a politician would explain himself to the county’s largest newspaper, or supply it with timely information. Transparency does not mean posting propaganda on a Facebook page, deleting negative comments from community members responding to said propaganda (many of which simply point out factual mistakes) and then calling those people members of a “hate group.” Madore does all of these things.

This behavior, sadly, trickles down to county staff. One time, following a board time meeting last spring, I asked county Administrator Mark McCauley for some documents that were referenced during the meeting. I apologize, but I don’t remember what I requested. I think the documents were either about the county’s concealed weapons policy or the fee waiver program, but I may be wrong.

I expected McCauley to pass the documents along because, frankly, there was no reason not to. I don’t think they were that controversial, and they would take no time to find. His response: “You can file a public disclosure request.”

That threw me for a loop. Why should filing a public disclosure request be the expectation for receiving a document referenced during a meeting? I told him that seemed like a stonewalling tactic, as it would take several days for the request to be processed. Why should I have to wait? The paraphrased response: Because the county can do that.

Transparency, ladies and gentlemen.

I don’t necessarily blame McCauley for this encounter. He works under commissioners who wish to scuttle certain bits of information. He answers to commissioners who can conceivably fire him if he runs afoul of them. It must be a difficult job. Of course, with a $145,000 annual salary and retirement around the corner, I can see myself putting up with a lot, too.

There was one thing I always wanted to ask McCauley. It was about a book I saw on his desk the first time I was in his office, the title of which was “The Wisdom of Psychopaths.” What was that all about?

I looked it up on Amazon and discovered that the book posits that there are “functional psychopaths among us … who use their detached, unflinching, and charismatic personalities to succeed in mainstream society, and that shockingly, in some fields, the more ‘psychopathic’ people are, the more likely they are to succeed.” I wanted to ask him whether the book was a user’s manual that came with the county administrator job, a sort of how-to in dealing with certain people. (I would have intended this as a joke, of course — I’m not implying anyone in county government is a psychopath. And I imagine McCauley would have sat there stone-faced had I asked that, staring Laser beams into the back of my skull, which would have been an appropriate response.)

There’s a reason why the county has lost so many long-time, high-level employees, sometimes for jobs that pay less. Commissioners Madore and Tom Mielke, both Republicans, run county government with the sort of partisan aplomb that you might expect from members of Congress. The difference is that these guys are responsible for making local decisions, not authorizing the country to go to war. In other words, they’re not as important as they think they are.

They can be unredeemingly, nakedly sectarian in their decision-making. Whether it’s hiring state Sen. Don Benton and Peter Silliman to county jobs, or attempting to charge newspapers a “litter fee,” the commissioners will dig in their heels against criticism because to do otherwise would mean a political loss.

Having said all that, allow me to dust off my crystal ball and do my best Amazing Criswell impression. Over the next couple of years, the implementation of the home rule charter will lead to all sorts of interesting scenarios for the county. How it plays out will speak volumes about where the county is headed. Not only will there be two new council members elected next year, the structure of bureaucracy will also be tweaked. It’s still unclear what will happen with all of that, so it will be fun to watch.

It’s disappointing I’ll miss those changes. No matter what one thinks of the charter, there’s no getting around the fact that it’ll shake things up. And if there’s one thing a reporter likes, it’s when things are shaken up.

So, as I leave, I’m sure a little piece of me will miss the opportunity to cover the effects of the charter from the start. Interesting days are ahead.

Tyler Graf

Tyler Graf

I started working for The Columbian in 2012 and currently cover Clark County. I'm a 2007 graduate of The University of Oregon. Contact me at tyler.graf@columbian.com